When impeccably coiffed U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott concludes impeachment proceedings for the day, media outlets have one place left to turn: the pundits.
“Right now we are joined by so-and-so,” anchors announce. Sages decipher, dictate and analyze the day’s proceedings — then make predictions for the next day.
And more and more, the local media turn to one of the University’s own: Mark Rotenberg, the University’s general counsel. Nearly every media outlet in the Twin Cities has called Rotenberg’s office looking for answers to constitutional questions about the impeachment trial.
“The O.J. (Simpson) trial created a whole line of legal experts,” said Tom Lindner, KARE 11 news director who said he’s known Rotenberg for 15 years.
“I have never called any of these media outlets,” Rotenberg said. “I think it is the result of the insatiable appetite for talking heads.”
But the University’s head attorney said he is less the definition of a pundit, and more someone who hopes to get the public to think.
“I think it’s important for people to have a public dialogue about our Constitution and what’s happening to it with this crisis in Washington,” Rotenberg said.
Members of the media seek Rotenberg’s wisdom for many reasons: In the early 1980s, he worked in the Department of Justice’s legal counsel office, responsible for advising President Ronald Reagan.
One of his focus areas was executive privilege — the right of the President to withhold certain kinds of information. Rotenberg worked on Morrison vs. Olson, an executive privilege case that challenged the independent counsel statute. The case ended up in the Supreme Court.
The court decided in 1988 that the special prosecutor was constitutional, leading directly to the impeachment proceedings that Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr initiated.
Rotenberg disliked the result of the case.
“The present circumstance gives ample reason to conclude that the independent counsel law is fatally flawed,” Rotenberg said.
He cites a number of reasons: it violates the separation of powers, and the independent counsel answers to virtually no one.
“We’ve created basically an unaccountable source of substantial power in our government,” he said, with animated gestures and impassioned inflection.
Despite Rotenberg’s disdain for the position, Starr — the “unaccountable source of substantial power” — in October made his first public appearance since releasing his report in Rotenberg’s constitutional law class. Starr and Rotenberg teamed up to lead the two-hour class about the independent counsel.
“He’s a very bright scholar of the Constitution,” Rotenberg said of Starr, who worked with him in the Justice Department.
From KTCA to KARE to WCCO to Minnesota Public Radio, Rotenberg has done almost all the shows.
“I haven’t been on Barbara Carlson lately,” he said. A few years ago he appeared on her show on radio station KSTP to talk about University surgeon John Najarian.
“She had this dog that was biting my pants while I was interviewing, and during the break I asked if she’d take the dog out of there,” Rotenberg said. “She said no. It’s part of the thing her guests have to put up with.”
The media needs two things, Rotenberg said, which is why he is in demand. First, a local person is needed to give an angle to a national story.
“What is a national story but a lot of local regions interested in one story?” Lindner said.
Secondly, this is an unprecedented episode in our history.
“Every day there is a new question, and typically it’s something they’ve never thought of before,” Rotenberg said.
That’s where the experts come in.
Cari Dwyer, producer of “Mid-Morning” on Minnesota Public Radio said she asked Rotenberg to be on the show after she read an opinions piece he wrote for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
“He’s a great guest and did a good job of clarifying high crimes and misdemeanors and making the Constitution understandable,” she said.
Rotenberg enjoys the chance.
“Once every 130 years, scholars of the presidency and impeachment have an opportunity to have some excitement in their lives,” Rotenberg said, chuckling.