Let’s Go to the Tape

Every unimaginative magazine and newspaper editor who has ever resorted to a wearisome word-play headline based on the movie sex, lies, and videotape ought to be ashamed of themselves. When we finally get a real-life event that tracks perfectly with the movie title, no one with any self-respect can use the phrase because it’s become such a lowest-common-denominator cliche.

Washington Wednesday night is bubbling with speculation that release of the president’s video-taped grand jury testimony will prompt new cries for his resignation. (Maverick Pennsylvania Democrat Paul McHale and California Republican George Radanovich have just begun circulating a dear-colleague in the House asking for signatures on a letter that calls on Bill Clinton to step down. Their argument: “The President has asked for forgiveness from God and from the nation. With forgiveness comes accountability. To be accountable the President must resign.”)

But this latest twist in the Monica Meltdown reminds us that it was the president’s own decision to testify on videotape rather to meet the grand jury face-to-face. Without a tape, the Judiciary Committee would only have a written transcript to release, which would possess none of the emotional wallop of TV footage. That’s why it was revealing at today’s press conference when Clinton conceded that even though grand jury rules called for secrecy, he had always assumed that the tape would be released.

As Watergate proved, tapes are the coffin nails of presidencies. If Clinton knew that the video tape of his testimony would be eventually replayed on television, why did agree to this self-defeating format? A July 25 Washington Post story hints at the answer: It’s all Hillary’s fault. The first lady had appeared in person before the Whitewater grand jury in 1996 to answer questions on the still unsolved mystery of “they’re gone, no, they’re back” Rose law firm billing records. As a senior White House official, who sounds to Chatterbox like Rahm Emanuel, told the Post, “I can imagine the President saw what (Ken) Starr did to Mrs. Clinton and doesn’t want to subject himself or the Presidency to it.”

So rather than briefly snickering in mid-August at a few fleeting images of the president entering the federal court house, we will instead spend the weekend watching four hours of Clinton’s shifty answers. Given this kind of White House strategic thinking, Chatterbox devoutly wishes that short-sighted stupidity were among the constitutional grounds for impeachment.

Walter Shapiro