Prime-Time Purge in the Senate

Show Trial

    "I think that a lot of the fundamental principles that Jefferson Davis believed in are very important to people across the country, and they apply to the Republican Party." —Mississippi Congressman Trent Lott In 1984

If Americans expect the impeachment trial of the president to be per verse entertainment along the lines of the O.J. Simpson fiasco, they are likely to be disappointed. Even assuming there is a trial—and not a stop-short censure solution along lines suggested by New York's Daniel Patrick Moynihan—it will bear little resemblance to a spectacular criminal proceeding.

An impeachment trial, rooted in vague constitutional directives and precedents from the mid-19th century, would differ markedly from criminal trials. For example, a majority of senators could overturn rulings by Chief Justice Rehnquist, and even vote on pretrial motions. And a motion to adjourn that carries by a simple majority could totally shut down the trial.

Trent Lott and Jeff Davis: one president he wouldn’t vote to impeach.
AP / Wide World; Jefferson Davis: Archive
Trent Lott and Jeff Davis: one president he wouldn’t vote to impeach.

In fact, the Senate proceedings are more in the nature of a show trial, which does not call to mind historic precedents in American democracy as much as it invites comparisons with trials in the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Show trials are pure politics packaged as legal ritual. They have little to do with the law, or even vague moral nostrums that underlie the law, let alone anything to do with ethics. They are purges, conducted by which ever political faction happens to have the upper hand.

A trial of this kind may be appealing to congressional Republicans who want to humiliate the opposition. However, with congressional approval ratings sinking to Starr-like levels, turning the already tarnished Senate into the setting for a political purge risks disaster.

Even now, pundits are speculating that Congress is becoming the arena for a farcical replay of the Civil War, with Southern leaders once again acting out roles of rebellion against the federal government. In this scenario, majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, who portrays him self as a spokesman for the New South, is accurately pictured as a GOP leader who reverences links with the likes of Jefferson Davis. As was pointed out in the Sunday New York Times, Lott, then a congressman, stated in 1984: "I think that a lot of the fundamental principles that Jefferson Davis believed in are very important to people across the country, and they apply to the Republican Party."

Of course, the inimitable Henry Hyde and his crew of House "managers" will lead the mostly Southern inquisition in the upper chamber. It may be left to West Virginia's Robert Byrd to repulse the Judiciary Commit tee's boarding party. Just as important, though probably far more problematic, will be minority leader Tom Daschle's ability to restrain Clinton from putting his head on the block.

Happy Star Wars New Year

Strangelove Lives

Hottest topic in Washington in the coming year will be more money for the military—everything from rotting infrastructure to new Star Wars systems that wacko politicos believe can stop marauding "rogue states" like Iraq and North Korea from lobbing missiles into the U.S.

Chief beneficiaries of the new arms race will be the Big Three weapons manufacturers—Lockheed Mar tin, Boeing, and Raytheon—which receive one of every four dollars the Pentagon spends on munitions, according to William D. Hartung's recent study "Military-Industrial Complex Revisited," which was done for the World Policy Institute.

With the Clinton administration's recently announced five-year budget plan for the Defense Department, they'll get even more. The plan calls for a 50 percent increase in weapons procurement—from $40 billion a year now to over $60 billion a year by 2003. Currently at $270 billion a year, the military budget is about as high as it has ever been since the start of the Cold War.

Tightly linked to Congress, into which they pour campaign contributions, defense contractors have become accustomed to getting money they don't even ask for. Take the C-130 transport, built near Newt Gingrich's Georgia district. Although since 1978 the Air Force has requested only five of these planes, Congress has authorized the purchase of 256 of them, leading Republican senator John McCain of Arizona to remark that so many have been bought that "we could use them to house the homeless."

According to Hartung, the extra 251 C-130s don't go to the Air Force, but are doled out to National Guard units in key members' districts. More than half will be based at Kessler Air Force Base in Trent Lott's Mississippi.

However, the biggest rip-off in 1999 will be a revival of Reagan's loony Star Wars system, which right wingers insist we've just gotta have to beat back missiles they imagine will be otherwise raining on the U.S.

Already, Boeing is on board with a $1.6 billion contract to run Star Wars "systems integration." Lock heed Martin has a prime Army contract for a $3.2 billion Theater High Altitude Defense System, and Raytheon will run a $1.4 billion Theater Wide Defense System for the Navy.

Goaded by conservatives, the ad ministration figures things are getting worse instead of better. Instead of one opponent, there now are numerous "rogue states"; thus, instead of being prepared to fight one war, we've got to be ready to fight multiple wars.

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