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Blowing His Stack

By Margaret Carlson

TIME magazine

(TIME, August 31) -- Orrin Hatch can play with your head. As stiff as his white-collared shirts, a Rocky Mountain version of American Gothic, the Mormon Senator nonetheless makes nice with the Beltway Philistines. He flirts, brags endlessly about the Utah Jazz, fights Jesse Helms on his anti-aids legislation and is pals with Ted Kennedy. He writes love songs to his wife during long committee hearings and recorded an album of hymns, although he says he doesn't go crooning religious songs along the Potomac, as his good friend Ken Starr does. But that's one of the few ways in which he diverges from the independent counsel. As one of the frequent communicants at the altar of the Sunday-morning talk shows, Hatch has made it his mission to defend the judge. He's the James Carville of the right on the subject.

So when the President lashed back at the out-of-control prosecutor on Monday night, the lay minister who prides himself on his composure was suddenly out of control. Hatch appeared on five networks in an hour, breaking the previous indoor record for Consecutive Appearances in a Single Day, held by William Ginsburg. The screen went dark in the Map Room, and almost immediately there was Hatch on NBC threatening, "I'm just going to blow my stack" if he hears another word against Starr. His stack gone, he moved over to CNN, where he threatened to blow his "cork" if the phrase "$40 million" (as in "$40 million investigation") was repeated again. On the air, he said he was "personally offended" by Clinton's attack; in the hallway, he called the President a "jerk" (as close to a four-letter epithet as Hatch ever gets). Salt Lake Tribune reporter John Heilprin, shadowing Hatch, reported that his press secretary praised the usually placid Senator: "Stay passionate, Orrin. That's good."

Weeks ago, Hatch made an offer of consideration for confession, which he repeated in some form in virtually every TV appearance. My first reaction was that he ought to put that in writing for purposes of negotiating the terms of surrender. My second was to wonder exactly how much contrition he wanted, on a scale from Nixonian modified hangout to a full Jimmy Swaggart, from something suitable for family viewing to a blushing Playboy-channel disclosure. Hatch made a direct appeal to Clinton when he crossed paths with one of the President's spokesmen at NBC's green room in Washington. Hatch said he meant what he said, that he would do whatever he could to help the President if he would just come forward, stop the stonewalling and let up on Starr. Repent and slam no more.

Whether or not Hatch would have told Starr to shut down his investigation or urged Republicans to cease talk of impeachment if Clinton had followed his instruction, it was too late by speech time. The President had little left to lose. By being forced to testify, he'd given up just about everything. He'd raised the white flag on the Truman balcony, opened the gates to the enemy. Starr and his deputies invaded his house for six hours, asking graphic questions about extramarital sex while his daughter was in her room upstairs. Not only had Starr forced Clinton to come clean with his wife and daughter privately, he also made him do it before the whole country while they watched, a high price even for such reprehensible conduct.

That's why Clinton couldn't reach for the get-out-of-jail-free card dangled so tantalizingly by Hatch. His temper overcame his usually brilliant political skills. Hatch was satisfied with Clinton's contriteness, but it was the Starr part that got him blustering like a blunderbuss. There are, of course, plenty of reasons for Clinton to bash Starr. But Monday night was for taking responsibility. Hatch is right: getting caught is the chance every "jerk" takes when he cheats, and the guy who catches you is not the biggest problem. You are. That's true even if your captor is a jerk as well.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: August 31, 1998

"I Misled People"
Leading By Leaving
Blowing His Stack
Justice Should Come Before Closure
The View From Congress
Lies, Tight Spots
How We Really Feel About Fidelity
Is This What We Expect?
Can We Get On to Something Serious?
Finally, the Telltale Lie
That's Where He Lost Me
The Notebook: Clinton Loses Touch
Lies My Presidents Told Me
President Gantry Addresses The Flock

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