Today's Papers

Defensive End

When will Kenneth Starr end his prosecution of President Clinton? No time soon, reports the New York Times lead. With conviction by the Senate unlikely, Starr now contends that the president can legally be indicted while he still holds office. His indictment could remain under secret seal, and a trial would almost certainly be postponed until his term expires in 2001. The unnamed sources (“associates” of the independent counsel) also allege that Starr’s decision to indict will be unaffected by the outcome of the Senate trial. The Los Angeles Times leads with the White House’s furious reaction: “Somebody ought to tell [Starr] he’s not the 101st senator.”

The Times story reiterates that Starr doesn’t consider his mandate at all eroded by public disapproval: “Prosecutors do not take polls to decide what to do,” insists one source. The LAT and the Washington Post front the latest of these poll results: the LAT reports that 49% of Americans favor censure, and 46% think the charges should be dropped altogether (what do the other 5% want– removal? The paper doesn’t say). The Post poll is less dramatic, finding that 60% of respondents support censure but 33% support conviction and removal. A front-page news analysis in the Post explains how historical vanity could induce both parties in the Senate to unite around censure. Censuring the President would make Republican senators look firm and responsible but also pragmatic and unpetty. And censure would let Democrats distance themselves from the tawdriness of the President’s misdeeds while still preserving the requisite modicum of party loyalty.

The Post reports inside that conservative activist Gary Bauer will announce his nascent Presidential candidacy on this morning’s talk show circuit. Bauer is a formidable fundraiser with an extensive grassroots network– in the last election cycle, over 90,000 supporters pledged an average of $35 to his PAC. Bauer’s hero is Ronald Reagan; but without the buzz of a national reputation, he’ll be lucky to get as many votes as Pat Buchanan. Another story inside the WP describes how Republicans legislators are attempting, Clinton-style, to appropriate issues on which their Democratic opponents are traditionally strongest. By churning out legislation supporting block grants, local control, and parental involvement, the Republicans are hoping to re-zone education as GOP real estate.

The NYT and the Post front NATO’s authorization of air strikes in Yugoslavia, to begin if the Serbian government and ethnic Albanian leaders don’t start talks on a Western-drafted peace plan by next Saturday. The talks will take place in France, and must conclude by February 19. If a settlement is reached, NATO plans to send 30,000 peacekeeping troops to Kosovo. The NYT reports that 2000 to 5000 of these troops would come from the U.S.; the Post puts the number as high as 7000.

The Times and the WP each front long feature stories about how Internet companies engender and monitor relationships among strangers. The Times reports that America Online has become a lively center of discourse-sometimes too lively for the company’s admittedly tame taste. AOL enlists 14,000 volunteers patrollers who delete ‘offensive’ messages from chat rooms and message boards and assign demerits to their authors. The company recently nixed a heated discussion on Northern Ireland, raising questions about possible First Amendment obligations to allow open discourse. The Post story describes the far more laissez-faire approach taken by eBay, the explodingly popular site that allows users to barter, trade, and sell everything from pez dispensers to can openers. Even though the company facilitates actual commerce, it approaches regulation lightly, relying on its users to report on behavior deemed less than “eBaysian”. However, anyone found abusing the feedback system is instantly “vaporized” from the site. Its founders see eBay as a utopian online community, but angry users are calling it “an ineffectual police state, doling out random discipline without due process.”

The NYT Magazine cover story examines the decline and fall of the Italian Mafia in general, and the Gambino family in particular. The wiser of the wise guys have gone legit; the dumber ones (such as John Gotti Jr.) preside over sagging profits and faltering allegiances. Gotti sees himself as a victim of Government-led persecution, and compares Federal breakups of organized crime to the US Government’s treatment of Native Americans in the 19th century. Gotti has even tarnished the mob’s Coppolaesque grandeur: the piece mocks his car (a minivan), his attire (mock turtlenecks), and choice of repast (country-fried steak).