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THE SIMPSON VERDICTS : From Congress to the White House, Washington Paused for the Verdict

October 04, 1995|SAM FULWOOD III and MICHAEL HILTZIK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Rarely willing to acknowledge second billing to anything, Washington's highest government officials and agencies came to a virtual halt Tuesday, yielding to the Simpson verdict announcement.

From the White House to Congress to federal agencies, a raft of briefings, hearings and news conferences on national policies that had been scheduled for 1 p.m. local time were either postponed or canceled. Working lunches--where much of Washington's real business is transacted--stalled as diners tilted toward television sets.

Veteran Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), as self-serious as senior legislators come, called off the much-anticipated announcement of his reelection plans. "Given the developments of the O.J. Simpson case, Sen. Nunn has been persuaded by friends and members of the Georgia media not to hold a press conference today," a spokeswoman said, adding that the announcement would have to wait until the Simpson news dies down--possibly next week.

Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), a GOP presidential contender, conceded that "we all know what the lead on the news will be tonight," as he began a news conference before the verdict was read.

At the White House, which is typically a beehive of activity, work came to a near-standstill as presidential aides scrambled to find television sets.

About a mile up Pennsylvania Avenue in a Capitol Hill suite, the staff of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) gathered around an enormous conference table, spread picnic-style with takeout lunches, to watch the results on CNN.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher paused over his lunch with a fellow high-ranking Administration official to flip on a television and watch the proceedings. "He had a regularly scheduled lunch with [CIA Director] John Deutch," said Nicholas Burns, a State Department spokesman, who huffily insisted that Christopher did not rearrange his schedule for the announcement. "He did turn the TV on to hear the verdict and then turned it off," Burns said.

Throughout the trial, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno had gone out of her way to make it clear that, as the nation's chief law-enforcement officer, she was not scrutinizing the televised proceedings. She often said she had more important things to do.

But she abruptly postponed a scheduled 1 p.m. appointment. "It is reasonable to assume that it was moved because [the] situation was fraught with competitive difficulties," said chief Justice Department spokesman Carl Stern.

Meanwhile at the Supreme Court, the justices returned from their lunch break at 1 p.m. to hear scheduled arguments in a drug forfeiture case.

"You can rest assured the Supreme Court proceeded with arguments as planned," said spokeswoman Toni House.

But that's not to say the justices were uninterested in the affairs taking place in Judge Lance A. Ito's courtroom. About 1:15 p.m. Eastern time, after the nation heard the jury declare Simpson not guilty, young clerks walked to the bench and handed notes to Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg at one end and Justice Stephen Breyer at the other. The papers were passed to the middle. In the secretive fashion of the court, officials refused to divulge the contents of the notes.

Indeed, the entire nation paid attention to the verdict. Data from telephone companies and mail-order firms documented the magnetism of the magic moment in the Los Angeles courtroom.

At AT & T, where engineers compared calling volume over the company's nationwide long-distance network to volume during the same period last Tuesday, volume remained normal until 9:50 a.m. West Coast time. Five minutes later, it had dropped by 19% compared to the same time a week earlier.

Los Angeles-based Ticketmaster experienced a 50% to 60% drop in calling volume nationwide during the televised reading. The impact was even more pronounced in Los Angeles, said Ticketmaster Senior Vice President Alan Citron. At the Los Angeles phone room, where 60 operators generally field 90 callers at 10 a.m. on a normal weekday, they only had 10--including one who abruptly hung up in mid-order when the courtroom feed came on.

Even Wall Street paid its respects as activity slowed markedly during the broadcast. Trading volume on the New York Stock Exchange fell to an intra-day low of 13.7 million shares in the half-hour from 10 to 10:30 a.m. West Coast time, compared with an average of 31.5 million shares per half-hour in the time leading up to the announcement, and 27.6 million shares per half-hour for the balance of the day.

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