Lying is bad, except when you must lie

So, some readers thought I was going a little far a couple of weeks ago when I wondered whether America is leaning more and more towards a deeply unattractive authoritarianism. This week, before we return to the theatrical charade of the impeachment hearings that Washington is relishing so much - and there's been plenty to back up my theory there - let us consider the words last week of one of Detective-Inspector Starr's less illustrious "Independent Counsel" colleagues, a man who goes by the name of Donald C Smaltz.

Compared with Clinton, Smaltz's prey was small fry: Mike Espy, now 45, agriculture secretary in Clinton's first term and one of the few black politicians of stature in Clinton's first administration. Four years ago, Smaltz began investigating allegations that Espy had accepted bribes - tickets to football matches and the like - in return for favours from food companies. Detective-Sergeant Smaltz took four years, spending $17 million of taxpayers' money, turning over every nook and cranny of Espy's life. Finally he charged him with no fewer than 30 separate crimes, most of which could have landed Espy with a hefty prison sentence. Last week, a jury delivered their verdict: not guilty on every single count.

Smaltz's words afterwards were downright sinister: "The actual indictment of a public official may in fact be as great a deterrent as a conviction of that official," he pronounced. "The appearance of impropriety can be as damning as bribery is to public confidence." Geddit? In the brutally authoritarian police-state worlds of Starr, Smaltz and their ilk, the orderly rule of law and the assumption of innocence until guilt is proven apparently mean nothing: if we prosecutors say this Democratic politician is guilty, mein Herr, he's guilty, OK? Readers who disagreed with me a fortnight ago: is there not a whiff of fascism here?

Back, though, to this week's theatricals at the Capitol. I spent last weekend racking my memory to recall who it was who reminded me so vividly of Representative Henry Hyde, the white-haired 64-year-old Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Then it came to me. He was just like Mr "Gusty" Gale, one of my schoolmasters, who spent his entire career presiding over classrooms where chaos and anarchy reigned: kids lit up, fights would develop and blood was spilt, and so on. Mr Gale, though, always remained blithely benign and good-humoured.

So it has been with Hyde. His incompetence has been quite stupefying. He promised the White House "all the time they want" to defend the case against impeachment - and then limited their time to 15, then 30 hours (after Starr's four-year, $40 million campaign, note). He suddenly announced last week that his committee would switch its "investigations" to campaign fund-raising irregularities - then, on discovering that there were no smoking guns to fire at Clinton there, promptly reversed that within 72 hours. He dismissed as "a youthful indiscretion" the long adulterous relationship in his forties which destroyed the marriage of the woman involved - Clinton, too, was in his forties when he began his affair with Monica.

I've always found Hyde to be likeable, but under fire he's been found wanting; Gusty Gale did not have a mean bone in his body but I fear Hyde does, after all. The conduct of his "Judiciary" Committee has been a travesty to anyone with any sense of natural justice; it has been so one-sided, disingenuous and downright dishonest that General Pinochet would be trembling with pride over the way apparently democratic apparatus has been used to undemocratic ends.

It was a different story just over a decade ago. Then Colonel Oliver North was lying about much more serious matters than oral sex in the White House. His staunch defender in the House then was none other than the silly old goat himself, Henry Hyde. He jeered at the piety of those who "sermonised about how terrible lying is" and thought it ludicrous to "label every untruth and deception an outrage . . . it just seems to me too simplistic [to condemn all lying]". He added: "In the murkier greyness of the real world, choices must often be made."

Quite so. But the Henry Hyde of 1998 thinks differently (or does he?) from the Henry Hyde of 1987; now he is being swept along by the strategy of the Republicans and Starr, Smaltz et al to get Clinton by fair means or foul. Fellow Republican thickos are charging ahead alongside him, despite overwhelming signals from the American public that they want the matter dropped fast.

So brace yourself for more "Clinton impeached" shock headlines in the days to come. If it possibly can, the leaderless rump of Republicans in the full House will vote on Tuesday to impeach Clinton. Then, if they succeed, the matter will pass to the Senate - and, at that stage, a deal will promptly be stitched up. The Republicans and Starr will have failed in their ultimate goal, but succeeded in besmirching for ever the personal life and reputation of their country's democratically elected president - by what Detective-Sergeant Smaltz would doubtless call "the appearance of impropriety".

Then the Clinton presidency will plod on much as before, with memories of dangerous apparatchiks like Starr and Smaltz receding like bad dreams. You read it here first, months ago: 20 January 2001 is the date Bill Clinton will finally leave the White House, and not even the most devoted efforts of Inspector Starr and his state-sponsored henchmen will have succeeded in dragging him out before a date that is increasingly evolving into an important landmark for true democratic ideals.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 11 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Plato rules, OK?