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IMPEACHMENT HEARINGS

Political Theater With Vaudeville in the Wings

November 20, 1998|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Finally, all the players in the struggle to fire President Clinton were in one room and they spent the day locked in as unruly a game of kickball as any summer camp has ever seen.

It was the first time independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, Clinton's legal team, key members of Congress and their staff members all squeezed into one fancy hearing room to have it out.

With a media pack robust enough to cover a real war, the combatants engaged in a Washington special: the bloodless battle in which the biggest thing at stake is not a presidency but that carefully cultivated Capitol commodity, a reputation.

Even though almost everybody knew what was coming Thursday, that did not inhibit anyone, particularly during the first 28 minutes of the House Judiciary Committee hearing--from shin-kicking the other guy or lobbing tortured metaphors.

"We're disputing a railroading, that's what we're disputing," said Rep. Melvin L. Watt (D-N.C.), protesting a time limit set for the president's lawyer.

"This is a railroading before the whistle even blows and leaves the station," countered Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), protesting the protest.

If the official proceedings lacked some of the gravitas one might expect from only the third attempt in more than 200 years to unseat a president by impeachment, the behavior outside the hearing room was downright bizarre.

A man dressed as Thomas Jefferson in a white wig and knickers babbled about the Constitution until Capitol police escorted him out the door of the Rayburn Building. (Sally Hemmings was not with him.)

Tourists, clad in the requisite sneakers and baseball caps, trooped past the hearing room all day. They explained to reporters hungry for "atmosphere" that, no, they had not come to see history in the making but to see what they had heard was the best show in town.

In every hallway and stairwell, even in the men's room, congressional aides cupped their hands over their mouths and whispered to each other and to reporters about the action in another hallway or stairwell.

"This isn't a constitutional crisis, it's a . . . Mardi Gras," said Jim Jordan, the Democratic committee spokesman.

After listening to Starr, who gave a two-hour soliloquy about his investigation in a voice that could put a colicky baby to sleep, even committee members high-tailed it out of there.

Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the committee's senior minority member, took a stroll with former Watergate lawyer and Starr critic Richard Ben-Veniste. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) went to the Capitol gym and spent a half-hour on the Stairmaster.

"I was following to make sure he was staying with the text and then I went to work out," said Frank, who went from the gym to the Rayburn cafeteria to carbo-load before returning to the hearing.

The release of Starr's opening statement Wednesday night and subsequent headlines in Thursday's papers drained the hearing of what little suspense it might have had.

In the "overflow" room, featuring blue velvet curtains and oversized oil paintings of long-dead legislators, reporters and a few real people watched the proceedings on TV monitors. One spectator erupted into a low-grinding snore. Several people giggled.

"The strangest thing about covering this story is we all know how it's going to turn out but we don't know how it's going to get there," said Newsday columnist Marie Cocco.

But Rep. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) was not sure what was ahead of him. He was among several Republicans who hung on Starr's every word and gesture.

"I'd never heard him speak before like this," Graham said. By seeing Starr in the flesh, Graham had hoped to determine whether he was "a partisan hack or a good jurist," he said.

After several hours, the congressman seemed spent.

"This is like the most bizarre thing in my life. . . . " he said. "Trying to have a sense of humor about it all has helped me. But I also know no matter what I do politically in my career, my decision on this is my most important political legacy."

As the day wore on, there were brief reprieves from both boredom and bickering. There was even humor.

After Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) announced that pizzas would be ordered for dinner, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) intoned that she, for one, would prefer anchovies.

"And anchovies there will be for the gentle lady from Texas," said Hyde.

Contrary to appearances, there was other business being conducted in the nation's Capitol. In the Gold Room, around the corner from the impeachment hearing chamber, a few dozen congressmen's wives were having a lunch replete with red and white wine and bags of M&Ms. On the other side of the building, an office lottery was underway for incoming freshmen and incumbent lawmakers trying to upgrade their quarters.

"Now that's something members of Congress really care about," one staff lawyer told another.

In a day and proceeding and scandal that would discourage most people from a life in politics, Isamu Dyson was undeterred. Dyson, 21, purposely moved to Washington from San Diego three weeks ago to pursue a career in politics. He was the first person in line at 6:45 a.m. to get one of two seats set aside in the hearing room for "the public." He is clean-cut. He already looks like a politician. He even talks like one.

"If and when it's feasible and viable, I have every interest to run for office in the federal government," he said, and immediately blushed.

Run for office? Like for president?

"It would be," he said, reddening further, "an ideal position."

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