Pay-Back Politics or Legitimate Pursuit of Justice?

Kenneth Starr questioned Hillary Clinton on Saturday for the sixth time.

It's an old grand-jury trick from the prosecutor's playbook: Call a witness several times over an extended period to give sworn testimony. Eventually you may get closer to the truth as time and a fading memory create discrepancies in the witness's remarks.

Typically, such methods are employed against mafia dons. To some observers, this is a legitimate tool that should also be used with those at the highest levels of government. To others, its use against the first lady of the United States this weekend is another indication that Washington's partisan political battles are increasingly - and disruptively - spilling into the legal arena.

On Saturday, Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr questioned Hillary Rodham Clinton under oath for almost five hours at the White House. It was the sixth time Mrs. Clinton has been questioned about her role in the 1980s as a lawyer for Madison Savings and Loan, a failed financial institution.

Some political observers cite the four-year Whitewater investigation and its multiple offshoots as evidence that the culture of scandal and revenge is replacing political compromise, and diminishing the quality of debate over substantive issues of state.

"This sort of conflict over scandal has become a substitute for policy debate, even a substitute for politics," says political scientist Michael Johnston at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.

Whether or not charges of wrongdoing against public officials are proven, the marathon investigations (and multiple interrogations of Mrs. Clinton) are politically effective tactics that tend to diminish the influence and credibility of the target. And each time it happens, it sets the stage for retribution.

Mrs. Clinton's testimony comes at a key juncture. Mr. Starr may soon have to determine whether the evidence suggests she committed an indictable act. The Whitewater grand jury empaneled in Little Rock expires in two weeks. While his impartiality in the process has been assailed by Democrats, he is not the first to be accused of using the justice system for political ends.

Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh was similarly criticized for his seven-year, $35 million investigation of the Reagan and Bush administrations. In fact, no president has escaped the probative powers of the special prosecutor since the statute was minted in 1978.

That has not escaped the attention of Congress. It is expected to reform, if not eliminate, the independent counsel statute when it comes up for renewal this year.

Both parties have been stung by the post-Watergate legacy of pay back and the public's demand for higher ethical standards from its elected officials.

When House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia was brought up on ethics charges over a book deal, many perceived that as fair turnaround. Representative Gingrich led a campaign against previous House Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas, who left Congress amid allegations that he received unusually high royalties for a book and for "improper gifts" from a business associate.

In Gingrich's case, Republicans complained the investigation demanded by Democrats took critical time and energy away from the GOP legislative agenda - the Contract With America.

While serious wrongdoing deserves investigation, many here say it isn't the quest for justice but retribution that is sending both sides into a downward spiral of revenge, pay back, and "gotcha." The Clinton administration alone has come under almost 40 separate congressional and Justice Department investigations. The temptation for the next Democratic Congress to seek revenge on the next Republican president will be enormous.

"We have to stop this. All of us," says former White House special counsel Lanny Davis. "We are taking the criminal-justice system and using it as a weapon. We are criminalizing political differences," says Davis, who admits that many of the criminal investigations Democrats pushed on the Reagan administration came up empty handed.

Davis and others say that changing a culture of revenge-inspired investigations won't be easy. "I hate to think of the kind of crisis it would take to distract the two parties from this kind of politics," says Mr. Johnston at Colgate University.

"How do you end the system of pay back? You have to have restraint," says Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana. "When politicians sense their intemperate discourse is not meeting with the approval of voters, they'll change," he says.

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