Dash It, Sam’s Gone

From a certain perspective, Chatterbox always found it funny that Ken Starr even had an ethics adviser. Now that Sam Dash has belatedly made his dash for freedom from the star-crossed Starr investigation (promise: no more belabored puns), it’s worth asking what has Dash accomplished? With his permissive attitude toward Starr’s extra-curricular legal work, Dash was not exactly known for screaming “conflict of interest.” Maybe Dash’s sage counsel saved Monica Lewinsky from spending a January night in leg irons, and perhaps he even prevented Starr from indicting Webster Hubbell for even a fourth and fifth time. But whatever Dash’s behind-the-scenes contributions, Starr already received full value from his soon-to-depart ethics guru during Thursday’s hearing. How helpful to Starr that he could cite Dash’s Watergate pedigree to counter Democratic claims of gross violations of Nixon-era precedents. Moreover, by cleverly resigning on Friday, Dash gave the moribund impeachment inquiry something it badly needed: a second-day news lead.

Even though Dash’s “more in sorrow than in anger” departure was presumably not orchestrated, Chatterbox noticed that most of the spin bounced in Starr’s direction. For example, Dash’s resignation letter gave him a chance to go on record as a character witness for Starr, stressing that the independent counsel had conducted himself “with integrity and professionalism as did your staff of experienced federal prosecutors.” Dash also generously tossed a life raft to the beleaguered Henry Hyde. At a time when the Republican majority on the Judiciary Committee is under attack for its latest fishing-expedition subpoenas, Dash pointed out that the committee “can get its information from many sources, including through its own processes.” How can committee Democrats now rail against the subpoenas when their spokesman is busy hailing the Watergate veteran as “a giant of American jurisprudence”? For if the sainted Sam Dash implicitly blesses the committee’s subpoena of Bob Bennett, then it must be okay.

What about Dash’s stubborn insistence that Starr should not have testified? It’s hard to quarrel with Hyde’s counterargument that the committee then “would have been compelled to subpoena him.” Remember, without Starr’s reluctantly exculpatory testimony, desperate committee Republicans would now be weaving elaborate conspiracy theories about Filegate, the White House travel office and Hillary’s mysterious billing records.

Of course, the important point about Thursday’s “all Ken Starr all the time” marathon is that it allowed Starr to begin to rehabilitate his public image, which is all that matters in modern America. With Friday’s Wall Street Journal reporting that even the American Bar Association is about to come out against renewing the independent-counsel statute, it is certain that we will never see Starr’s like again.

So are there lasting life lessons to be drawn from Starr’s legendary lawyerly logorrhea on Thursday? Yes! Chatterbox has a suggestion for a modest reform guaranteed to improve the quality of life for public policy junkies, regardless of ideology: Let’s end the outmoded tradition of publicly reading written statements and speeches.

What precisely was the thrill in seeing Starr, a gray-haired man wearing a bland suit and tie, read aloud for more than two hours? Wouldn’t have it been more effective for TV to have projected Starr’s prepared remarks on the screen (run at a comfortable reading speed of 350 words per minute) while, say, The Battle Hymn of the Republic played in the background? That single Chatterbox reform would have saved each time-pressed American 90 minutes. And even Starr couldn’t have complained that such a patriotic presentation lacked gravity. Of course, Starr would still have been allowed to recite aloud any material that might have produced a TV sound bite. But trust Chatterbox, the quotable portions of Starr’s opening address could have been rattled off in less than five minutes.

Who–other than politicians–reads aloud any more? Granted books on tape have proven a godsend for long-distance commuters and body buffers with Stairmastered thighs. But aside from these niche markets, the need for public recitals died with the invention of radio. Chatterbox would be surprised if even one American family still spends Christmas Eve reading Dickens to each other.

So why does this tedious 19th century tradition endure in politics? Chatterbox can think of only two reasons: 1) TV demands it; and 2) politicians need to be held responsible for the words their speechwriters create. Clever graphics could probably remedy TV’s need for images more vivid than just written words on the screen. (Imagine if cartoon figures were allowed to animate the president’s State of the Union Address). And instead of giving lengthy speeches, political figures need only raise their right hands and solemnly swear that they stand by every word in their advance texts. In other words, let’s insert these speeches and statements in the public record–and, as they say at the White House move on.

Back in 1978, Chatterbox heard West Virginia Sen. Jennings Randolph, one of the last survivors of FDR’s Congress, tell a local audience at a hospital dedication, “They wrote a speech for me. But you’re my friends, so I’ll speak to you from my heart.” At that moment, Randolph took a bulky text from his suit pocket and threw it on the floor in disgust. There was a lot of wisdom in that old-time political theater. Chatterbox has forgotten precisely what Randolph ad-libbed, but he does remember that the elderly senator’s impromptu remarks were mercifully brief.

Walter Shapiro