Lying to Larry

Chatterbox was astounded to read in the Jan. 8 New York Times that Ken Starr’s indictment of Julie Hiatt Steele accuses Steele of obstructing justice when she allegedly lied during an appearance on Larry King Live. Since when is it against the law to lie on Larry King Live? Chatterbox had always thought the whole point of going on Larry King Live was to tell lies. Tell a lie on Nightline or 60 Minutes and your interviewer is liable to confront you with contrary evidence. Tell a lie on Larry King Live and your interviewer is liable to stroke his chin and say you’ve lost a little weight. Where would you rather lie?

Anyway, Chatterbox, after examining the indictment, can report that Steele is not being indicted for lying on Larry King Live, exactly. Rather, she is being indicted for (among other things) the following sequence of events: 1.) Going on Larry King Live. 2.) Making to Larry “a number of important false and misleading statements and representations” about what Kathleen Willey allegedly told her about allegedly being groped by Bill Clinton, and what she, Steele, in turn, allegedly told someone else about the alleged groping. 3.) Then, 11 days later, during an appearance before a federal grand jury in Virginia, presenting “without being asked in any way … a video tape and a transcript of her appearance on Larry King Live so the grand jurors could consider the information contained in the broadcast.”

So: The alleged offense isn’t lying on Larry King Live . It’s offering up the allegedly untruthful TV interview to a federal grand jury. Still, Chatterbox can’t help but feel that the whole thing is a bit disproportionate. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Julie Steele’s current story is a lie (she denies that, of course), and that it’s important for the public to know that. What should be done about it? The prosecutorial solution is to indict her. Public money is spent, a private citizen is forced to hire a lawyer, and the lives of a dozen or so people are disrupted so they can sit on a jury. Kind of a nuisance, no? Now consider the journalistic solution: A private company pays someone (preferably not Larry King) to dig around for facts that contradict her statements and publishes or broadcasts the results to thousands or millions of people. Nobody has to hire a lawyer. Nobody even has to read or hear about it unless they want to. And it doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime.

The journalistic solution is, of course, inadequate when the liar under oath is a public official. That’s why President Clinton is in such a mess right now. But it seems entirely sufficient for a 52-year-old woman who may have told a few whoppers on the stand.

But wait, you say. Steele isn’t the target at all; Clinton is. Nail Steele and she may be willing to tell lurid stories about White House operatives pressuring her to lie. Maybe it will go all the way to…the president! And then maybe we can … impeach him! But Clinton has already been impeached, and it’s a bit late in the game to be gathering new evidence. Is Starr looking to indict Bill Clinton should the Senate fail to convict? Or is he just stirring the pot while the Senate makes up its mind about the probable perjury and possible obstruction of justice described in the articles of impeachment?

A footnote: Even when prosecution is preferable to journalism in punishing liars, we mustn’t deny the particular pleasures journalism can give us that prosecution cannot. An example is the wonderful detail, first reported many years ago by Evan Thomas in Time, that whenever former CIA director William Casey would utter a lie before a congressional committee, deputy director Bobby Inman would pull up his socks. Try admitting that kind of evidence into a perjury trial.

Addendum: Thanks to the many readers who pointed out that Dick Morris’ proposal for Congress to strip Bill Clinton of his pension and allowance upon leaving office, as previously outlined by Chatterbox (“Vengeful Dick“), is, in addition to being mean, a bill of attainder, i.e., aimed at punishing one individual, hence unconstitutional.