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Trial as an exercise in emotional intensity

For House prosecutor who will question Vernon Jordan, 'human drama' iscrucial.

By Ann Scott TysonSpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 29, 1999



WASHINGTON

It was well after 10 p.m. when House prosecutor Asa Hutchinson grabbed a meal of fast food, drove from Capitol Hill back to Pentagon City, Va., and took the elevator to his high-rise apartment, looking forward to a good night's rest.

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Representative Hutchinson felt drained after arguing for witnesses in the Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton. But the balance had again shifted in the seesaw atmosphere, he sensed, and the call for witnesses, doomed just hours earlier, now seemed to have enough Republican support to pass.

But sleep eluded the tall, soft-spoken Arkansan, who has been a political adversary of Mr. Clinton for more than 20 years. "My mind was racing," he said later in an office cluttered with trial documents. "It was working on how to question [Clinton friend and future witness] Vernon Jordan."

The determination of Hutchinson and the 12 other House prosecutors to prevent a short-circuited impeachment trial has rubbed up hard against trial-weary senators. All the pushing and pulling (some would say shoving and yanking) has created a seldom-seen emotional intensity on Capitol Hill - one GOP prosecutors hope may yet play to their advantage.

"We have to have that human drama," Hutchinson said in his measured, Arkansas twang. "We have to have the persuasiveness which you cannot get from pieces of paper."

Wednesday's 56-to-44 party-line votes to extend the trial and depose witnesses all but confirm that the two-thirds majority to remove Clinton is not there. But Hutchinson and his team hold out hope that - with their new opportunity to create that human drama - they can change some minds.

In a deposition set for Monday, Hutchinson will question Mr. Jordan, who along with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal will undergo videotaped depositions. The assignment, the Arkansas Republican acknowledges, is a tough one. One of Clinton's closest allies, Jordan is "an articulate, seasoned, international lawyer" accustomed to giving cautious answers, he says.

Struggling over what to ask and how to ask it, Hutchinson expressed frustration at a Senate requirement that he detail on the floor key points of conflict and ambiguity in Jordan's existing testimony - thus divulging central lines of questioning.

Approaching the impeachment trial more as a legal than a political event was a mistake, Hutchinson adds, saying he had naively hoped to call more than a dozen witnesses. "I was wrong - this is really a political process."

Still, managers hope that "appearances" of their three witnesses - even if only via videotape - will persuade more senators to vote to convict Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice.

The hope runs especially high for Ms. Lewinsky's testimony. "[Senators] might say, 'My, she's telling the truth!' " he says.

Recalling his meeting with her at a Washington hotel Jan. 23, Hutchinson says he was surprised by her cooperation. "She was very kind and generous in her spirit and did not come across as hostile." Lewinsky, who will be deposed by Rep. Ed Bryant (R) of Tennessee, "has the intelligence to recall the facts that are important and the poise to handle the pressure," he says.

Roller-coaster swings in the political dynamics have meant a bumpy ride for House managers, whom many cast - unfairly, Hutchinson says - as desperate men on a crusade for conviction. "I am not burdened by any particular outcome," says Hutchinson, who represents the hilly, conservative rural district where Clinton cut his teeth in electoral politics in the 1970s.

Asked whether he believes whether in the end, justice will be done, Hutchinson pauses. "Some would argue that this is not where you seek justice - that is left to the courts," he says. "But the oath [senators] took was to do impartial justice. I hope we will be able to find justice, but we won't know until it's over."