The other day, near the Staples
Center, where the Democratic National Convention was under way, Los
Angeles police arrested more than 70 bicycle riders from an
anti-automobile organization. The cyclists' alleged crime: pedalling
the wrong way down a one-way street. The riders, however, insisted
they had been co-operating with police, even riding with a police
escort, which, for whatever reason, suddenly forced them down that
The cyclists' accusation -- that the LAPD had created a
prosecutable crime out of thin air -- got little press coverage. Yet
it struck some observers as an eerie parallel to the big news that
President Bill Clinton is yet again facing a grand jury
investigation. One could almost hear foreheads smacking from coast
If Canadians have trouble understanding why an investigation is
still dragging on into Mr. Clinton's prevarications about his high
jinks with Monica Lewinsky, rest assured that Americans have no
greater insight into the matter.
For offences that the courts and the people of the United States
have decided was not a Nixonian attempt to subvert the Constitution,
Mr. Clinton has already paid a $90,000 fine and been impeached but
not convicted by a highly partisan Congress. For giving false and
misleading answers regarding the Lewinsky affair, he still faces
disciplinary action that could result in his disbarment as a lawyer.
Yet, as the Democratic convention showed and the polls confirm, he
remains a hugely popular president.
Why, then, the continued legal manoeuvring, after six years of
investigation and more than $50-million spent so far?
A number of possible answers come to mind. First and most obvious
is politics. The timing of the announcement, leaked to The
Associated Press and broken just hours before Al Gore was to be
nominated as the next Democratic standard-bearer, was initially eyed
with suspicion, since the grand jury was secretly empanelled on July
11. After all, the news had remained a secret for more than a month.
Although that particular conspiracy bubble was punctured Friday when
a Democrat-appointed judge admitted to having been the inadvertent
leaker, the overall politicization of the legal process remains a
The three-judge panel that gave the prosecutor the go-ahead this
week to continue his investigation for another year is headed by
David Sentelle, a man in the thick of the conservative establishment
who was handpicked by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a Nixon
This is important, for as well-liked as Mr. Clinton is, he
remains the best, and perhaps only, scandal pop-up doll that can be
reactivated in the service of the Republicans -- if only in a
"progress" report that an independent prosecutor is moving forward
to build a case he will not actually prosecute until after Mr.
Clinton becomes a private citizen next January. Besides, how else to
catch the commander-in-chief but in the one act he can't blame on a
Another force behind the seemingly inexorable Lewinsky case is
the nature of the independent counsel statute itself. Congress has
allowed this legislation, which authorized and funds the current
prosecutor, Robert Ray, as it did his controversial, zealous
predecessor, Kenneth Starr, to lapse. Yet by a kind of
grandfathering, the current investigations are permitted to continue
indefinitely at the prosecutors' discretion. One big problem with
the independent counsel is that the same qualities that permit good
prosecutors to do quality work also gives crusaders with less worthy
motives carte blanche to act irresponsibly.
The independent counsel is truly independent -- not accountable
to anyone else in terms of his priorities, his budget, or the
duration of his investigation. By contrast, most American
prosecutors (federal, state and local) are accountable -- directly
elected in some jurisdictions, appointed by, and removable by,
elected officials in others.
Another factor is simply the motivation of the prosecutor. Having
taken over from Mr. Starr in October of 1999, neither Mr. Ray nor
his staff who are doing this interesting (and ideologically
congenial) work at comfortable salaries has any incentive to shut
down the investigation quickly.
Perhaps the most important factor has to do with what might be
called the legal mindset. As a friend of mine who attended law
school but chose, instead, the activist-writer life put it, the
training of lawyers generally involves instilling a sense of
indignation over minutiae without concern for context. In this
regard, they are often abetted, as we have seen throughout the
Clinton-Lewinsky matter, by co-conspirators in the journalistic
The real story in post-convention America is the subversion of
both major parties, and of the democratic process itself, by the big
money contributions of large corporations. That is the inchoate
message of the demonstrators in the streets -- and on that count,
Mr. Clinton, along with the major Republican figures of the past few
years, including former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Senate Majority
Leader Trent Lott, and now George W. Bush -- are surely guilty.
To investigate the enormous toll that corporate bribery -- to
call "soft money" by its real name -- has had on public
participation, on the environment, on safety and health, would keep
an independent counsel legitimately busy for decades. First, though,
you would need to make these activities as illegal as riding the
wrong way down a one-way street.
Russ Baker is a New York-based journalist whose work has
appeared in such publications as The New York Times, Esquire, The
Nation, the London Observer and the Columbia Journalism
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