The delivery of Kenneth Starr's report to the House Judiciary Committee presents an opportunity for a statesmanlike precedent by the committee. The country is fortunate that the chairman is Henry Hyde and the ranking Democrat is John Conyers. Both are excellent lawyers and dedicated public servants, and there is a better-than-usual possibility that the Lewinsky matter will be concluded with a minimum of embarrassment.
But their task will not be easy. The scandal lends itself to salacious stories and tawdry details. How can Congress investigate it with dignity and without dragging the country through the mud?One alternative, sometimes overlooked in private litigation as well as in government proceedings, is to make use of written interrogatories. They served me well in dealing with President Ronald Reagan in the Iran-contra investigation in 1986. We had built a strong case against two of his subordinates, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North and John M. Poindexter, Reagan's national security adviser, who had siphoned money from the sale of arms to Iran to illegally assist the arming of the contras in Nicaragua.
When it came time to question Reagan, however, we had to be careful. Since we knew he would not remember details well, we were reluctant to confront him face to face with difficult questions. Instead we served him with written questions so that he could have the assistance of his lawyers and of his documents and submit written answers. As a result, the president's dignity was preserved, and we got very firm answers.
Later, when Reagan testified in Poindexter's trial, he relied on the truthful answers he had given to our questions and resisted whatever temptation he may have felt to give answers that would exculpate the defendant.
There is no reason not to follow this same procedure in the present case. After members of the Judiciary Committee have had an opportunity to analyze the material submitted by Starr, the committee could formulate the questions it believes President Clinton must answer and then present them to him in writing.
This might eliminate the spectacle of having witnesses testify in public hearings, and spare Clinton the ordeal of testifying under oath before Congress under conditions that might prove needlessly damaging to him and, even more important, to the country.
If for some reason Clinton's answers are incomplete, or if the committee decides certain areas require more exploration, further questions could be put to the president. Should he fail again to provide satisfactory answers, then the committee can summon him to testify in person.
At this stage, no sensible person relishes the prospect of a public inquiry from which there may be no return. Written questions and answers offer an alternative. The procedure I've suggested would give the president one last opportunity to be wholly forthcoming.