Today's Papers

Byrd Call

The papers lead with Sen. Robert Byrd’s announcement that he’ll make a motion to dismiss President Clinton’s impeachment trial next week.

Byrd, described in the usual way as the silver-haired, all-but-marbled repository of Constitutional wisdom and “defender of Senate prerogatives,” was basically just counting votes. He said that there weren’t enough to convict, and witnesses weren’t going to change anything. But as the Washington Post puts it, “Byrd has been one of the Senate’s toughest critics of Clinton’s behavior in the Lewinsky scandal, and virtually every scenario for convicting the president has included the 81-year-old West Virginian defecting from the Democratic camp.” Republicans were disappointed. The Post gave prominent play to Rep. Henry Hyde’s frustrated riposte from the floor of the Senate: “You’re saying, I guess, that perjury’s okay if it’s about sex, that obstruction is okay….”

The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times put Byrd’s bombshell in the context of moves by members of both parties to get things over with. Republican Orrin Hatch, the papers report, said that the Senate should hear witnesses and adjourn the trial, letting the House vote stand as “the highest form of condemnation.” The LAT lead says that the impeachment case “appeared to lose significant ground.” The NYT says “the Senate appeared hungrier than ever for a graceful exit from a potentially prolonged trial.”

No one predicts that Byrd’s motion will pass. The LAT main story is the clearest about how the surprise announcement was made, in a press release distributed in the Senate gallery.

There are two key subordinate trial stories. The Post’s second lead (and the NYT’s third story; the LAT ran it inside) details a legal subplot, complete with a walk-on by Ken Starr. The House managers want a tete-a-tete with Monica Lewinsky, but she won’t talk to them. Lewinsky’s lawyers say she doesn’t want to help “either side.” The managers called in Starr to make her; late yesterday Starr asked a U.S. district court to revoke Lewinsky’s immunity agreement if she doesn’t play ball with Hyde and Co. Judge Norma Holloway Johnson will decide over the weekend.

The other story addresses how the trial in the Senate progressed. The LAT and WP segue into it after the big Byrd news; the NYT offers its usual R.W. Apple “In the Chamber” report. All three papers enjoy the oddness of the proceeding, wherein Senators, forbidden to speak, had to submit written queries to Chief Justice Rehnquist through their party leaders. But all agree that the Senators used the opportunity almost exclusively to lob softball questions, some of them prearranged.

Over the last few weeks a story about the Chief Justice has rarely been complete without a reference to the zeal with which he enforces time limits on oral arguments in the Supreme Court. (He’s often described as cutting attorneys off “mid syllable” when the clock runs out.) The papers, with perhaps a bit of disappointment, note his uncharacteristic laxness on this point as he presided over a day of questioning that was supposed to consist of five-minute responses. The first answer went on for nine minutes.

The Post has a perhaps-too-friendly story about the Pope, who’s visiting Mexico: “To understand the significance of this pontiff, it helps to see him through his own eyes, and measure him by the yardstick of church history.” The LAT is more probing about his effect on the church’s infrastructure in Latin America. He wiped out the liberation theology movement, which had enlivened the church, particularly by attracting new clergy. Now they’re low on priests, and capitalism stands rampant, with its attendant onus on the poor. A gently critical NYT op-ed piece by a professor named Jorge G. Castaneda makes the same point.

The two Times see the Olympics scandal spreading past Salt Lake City and touching next summer’s games in Sydney. The papers report that gifts from that city to two African International Olympic Committee members in 1993 may have tipped the balance in a close vote that saw the Australians beat out Beijing by but two votes. The WP limns the pampered lives of IOC officials, who jet around the world in first-class comfort, accumulating largess in the form of medical treatment, college tuition, and slick land deals. Most amusing example: the case of the Korean’s representative’s daughter, a budding concert pianist with a knack for scoring high-profile gigs in upcoming sites for the Games.

From the footnote-to-history department comes a WP story about the Richard Nixon estate’s campaign to be compensated for papers taken by the government after Nixon resigned. The estate is asking for $210 million, counting accrued interest. Specifically, it wants $90,000 for a confiscated file of telegrams and letters sent in response to Nixon’s famous “Silent Majority” speech. Alexander Butterfield, the aide who stunned Watergate investigators with news of Nixon’s taping system a quarter of a century ago, yesterday testified that the massive response to the speech was fabricated. This was known already, though the Post doesn’t say so. But Butterfield, now 72 and sporting a watch with a picture of Nixon meeting Elvis Presley on it, has the details. He said he enlisted help before the speech from labor unions, the VFW, William Casey, and even H. Ross Perot, who said he’d bring a locomotive full of mail into Union Station. “He did generate a lot of mail,” Butterfield is quoted saying. The locomotive never materialized.