Days of Whine and Ruses

The expression that came over Robert Bennett's face each time Senator Dennis DeConcini attacked him was riveting.

The special counsel for the Senate Ethics Committee stared straight at Arizona's senior senator with a contemptuous glare. Bennett remained motionless, his arms folded over his big belly like an irritated passenger on a crowded bus.

"Ask yourself how did Mr. Bennett, the prosecutor, treat Senator McCain and how did he treat Senator DeConcini?" demanded DeConcini.

When the hearings had opened, the room was packed. But when DeConcini spoke it was only half-filled. To most, the issues are already settled.

DeConcini complained that Bennett had given special favors to McCain in the way his deposition was handled.

DeConcini kept hammering at what he said was Bennett's bias against three of the five senators. That would be himself, Senator Donald Riegle of Michigan and Senator Alan Cranston of California.

"Mr. Bennett, the prosecutor, is gonna lay it out just as bad as he can," DeConcini said. "He wants to nail somebody. He wants another trophy."

Bennett continued to say nothing. He removed his glasses and gave DeConcini a baleful glance.

DeConcini managed to appear naive when he explained that Charlie Keating had even been highly regarded by Mother Teresa (to whom Keating had donated more than $1 million.)

"When she came to Washington and I was introduced to her as being from Arizona, she asked: `How is my friend, Charlie Keating?'"

DeConcini's speech was rambling and obviously driven by desperation.

"I was told to take my time because my reputation's on the line," DeConcini said, his voice wavering. "It's not on the line. It's fallen over and it's in a free fall.

"Mr. Bennett is just finding out that it's a damned big job to raise $4 million in a small state like Arizona."

Bennett raised his eyebrows and then shook his head from side to side in what now appeared to be faint contempt.

DeConcini now took a gamble that wasn't worth taking. He begged the committee to set him free from the hearing.

"I ask you to dismiss the charges against this senator," he said, making a request he certainly must have known was impossible to honor.

"You can make it a little better by saying [to me], `You've done no wrong.'"

DeConcini then admitted that such an action, though justified in his own mind, would stir criticism from groups like Common Cause, which instigated the charges against the Keating Five.

DeConcini seemed like a drowning man, desperately reaching for a life preserver.

He talked about his family, pointing out to Senator Howell Heflin, the committee chairperson, that DeConcini's own father had been an Arizona Supreme Court judge.

He did not add, however, that the late Evo DeConcini also had testified as a character witness for mob figure Joe Bonanno.

The details of the two meetings in DeConcini's office on behalf of Keating have become a legend of the West now just like the Gunfight at OK Corral or the shooting of Billy the Kid.

Nothing DeConcini, McCain, Riegle, and Cranston, or John Glenn of Ohio can say will change the public's perception.

Collectively, they took more than a million dollars of Keating's money and then leaned on government regulators to get special favors for him.

This is just about all any voter has to know about the case. There is much worse to tell, but this should be enough to end the career of any senator in that room.

"I broke no law," DeConcini said. "I broke no rule. I committed no crime. This senator has done no wrong. I make no apologies."

We do not often see political careers dissolve before our eyes.

DeConcini pulled out all the emotional stops. He jerked up his sleeves. He pounded the lectern. He waved his arms.

He even complained of the expense of the hearings to the taxpayers and noted that his own lawyer had cost him $200,000 already.

I was reminded of something humorist Sydney Smith once wrote: "The more he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons."

When it was over, DeConcini seemed wilted and drooping. He had spoken longer than any of the five senators being heard. His speech consumed two hours and thirty minutes and he had really made no significant points. He was a man crying out for mercy.

A little while later, Bennett, who hadn't said a word throughout DeConcini's attacks, rose to speak.

"I feel like I'm in the lion's den," Bennett began. "I feel as if my arms and legs were tied behind my back and that if Senator DeConcini swung that big bat of his at my head and I ducked, he'd say, `Aha! You're acting like a prosecutor again.'"

Then Bennett said something that could be deadly to DeConcini's hopes.

"The one thing I've learned in my investigation in this year," Bennett said, "is that this case is an aberration.

"The issue in this case is not me. The issue in this case is the conduct of the five senators."

Bennett sat back down. The room grew very silent.

This must have been the moment that Dennis DeConcini realized he had become an outsider.

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Tom Fitzpatrick