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A Lead Actor in Search of a Plot

Sen. Fred Thompson Inside joke: Sen. Fred Thompson, center, with colleagues Carl Levin and John Glenn.
(By Susan Biddle—The Washington Post)

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 11, 1997; Page B01

Summer is the season of action movies, barbecues, road trips and tendentious televised Senate hearings to root out government misdoings. All these activities should, in an ideal world, be dumbed down for mass appeal, reduced to their fundamental comedy or horror. Summer is a full-body season, fleshy, visceral.

So far Sen. Fred Thompson's show on Capitol Hill has failed the summer standard. It's all higher-cortex stuff, and simultaneously confusing, like reading literary criticism that's badly translated from the French. Thompson (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, promised to tell a story with these hearings, but so far all we know is that John Huang is the bad guy. Bad, bad, bad guy.

It may yet prove to be a fine and worthy inquiry into the putrid nature of political fund-raising – and there are moments when the documents start to cohere in a truly squalid narrative – but right now the hearing is a cultural bust, largely ignored by the electronic media, at times available live only through the Internet.

Thompson himself, however, is captivating. He is rumored to be a potential presidential candidate, but the truth is that he already seems like President Thompson. He satisfies the primitive lizard-brain craving for a president who looks and talks and acts like a president, which is to say, someone who acts like a submarine captain. He has a giant head, like Bill Clinton, only Thompson's head is far more interesting, the big dome literally forming the gravitational nexus of the room.

His face is not wrinkled like an old person's, but rather is lined, deeply, like a cowboy's. There are the horizontal furrows of his forehead, framed by vertical lines created by the surging skull; there are shallow pouches under the eyes, oversize parentheses around the nose and mouth, a couple of anchoring jowl-lines. The mouth is usually set in an upside-down smile – almost a parabola – but often widens into a good ol' boy grin.

President Thompson will clamp a meaty palm on his microphone when he turns to whisper to a flunky. When he stands he unconsciously buttons his suit jacket, to remain decorous. He never seems rushed or worried, even when his lead witness is monosyllabic. He runs the show but somehow seems above it.

At one point this week a senator pressed for a closed-door meeting with Janet Reno to discuss giving John Huang, the bad guy, immunity in exchange for testifying, which Reno opposes. "I think that's a good idea," President Thompson said. Another senator jumped in and said it was a bad idea, that they shouldn't cut Huang any slack and should heed Reno's advice. "Those are good ideas, too," Thompson said with one of those big grins. Endorsing both sides: Very presidential.

The proceedings careen back and forth, from prosecution (by the Republicans) to obfuscation (by the Democrats). The Democratic strategy has been to bring up misdeeds by the Republicans and hope it's all a wash. John Glenn (Ohio), the top Democract, went so far as to applaud the Democratic National Committee for a fine job. Only Joseph Lieberman, Democrat from Connecticut, seems to have any interest in playing the old Howard Baker role of Watergate days, breaking with the party line to ask relatively hard questions.

The first day was reserved for blustery opening statements, and not until the second day was there an actual witness, Richard Sullivan, the former DNC finance director. To the dismay of the Republicans he turned out to be tongue-tied and hesitant, refusing to smear anyone or tell dirty secrets. He had all the explosiveness of Rice Krispies.

He tried to downplay the strangeness of the DNC's decision to hire Huang as a fund-raiser, though he admitted that Huang needed "special training" in such matters as how to not break the law. Huang's hiring was pushed by the White House, including the president, but Sullivan said yesterday such pressure wasn't that unusual. He consistently maintained that the "coffees" in the White House were not fund-raisers, even though they were listed on a schedule of "fund-raising activities." This hair-thin distinction continued to drive Republican Sen. Pete Domenici (N.M.) up the wall, inspiring him to declare that Sullivan was "skewing words." At one point Domenici interrupted Sullivan and said, "I love to hear you ramble on."

Domenici is shaping up as the most unpredictable senator, bordering on the weird. Yesterday Domenici opened up by calling attention to Sullivan's wife, saying she looked "uncomfortable" sitting isolated, about 10 feet from her husband, and suggesting that she might want to sit with someone. She squirmed. Should she get up? She stayed where she was. The senator was apparently trying to be friendly, but it might not come naturally to him.

Emerging feebly but intriguingly from the hearing are the strong malodorous vapors of slimy activity. One Democratic fund-raising memo outlines how the White House can be used to give favors in exchange for money: "White House mess privileges" is one goodie.

So too were chances to attend the president's radio addresses. One Democratic donor, Johnny Chung, got five Chinese businessmen into a radio address after giving $50,000 to Hillary Clinton's chief of staff; the money, the Republicans charged, was funneled to Chung by the Bank of China just three days earlier.

The dollar amounts are still shocking: $50,000 seems to have been the price of a cup of coffee in the presence of the president. Nor did the Democrats seem to get too suspicious when a first-time donor named Yogesh Gandhi wrote them a check for $325,000. It turned out Gandhi had no assets in America; the money apparently came from an operative in Japan.

This year the hearings are in a new place, the Hart building, in a room that is most striking for its skyboxes, little glassed-in rooms with lamps and one or two people looking down on the proceedings. There is a marble wall that has Rorschach-test-like patterns to provide diversion during slow moments. There are no art deco sconces as one might find in the Russell building, no chandeliers, indeed it is more of an auditorium than a classic Washington hearing room. But it's perfect for TV, and now needs only some actual material, some content, to launch itself into the national psyche.

Certain traditions of a summer Senate hearing are unchanged. There is still the formal language of the game, the "I reserve the balance of my time, Mr. Chairman" sort of stuff. There are the rules, the protocols, the most annoying of which is that every senator, and there are 16 of them, gets a turn to hold forth and emit wind. The hours pass helter-skelter, the focus changing chaotically, from White House coffees to the Buddhist temple gig to soft money to Huang to Chinese arms merchants.

No one has yet asked what the president knew and when did he know it. Neither has anyone made a complete fool of himself, another usual requirement of a Senate hearing. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) came closest yesterday. While grilling Sullivan about Huang, Brownback suddenly lapsed into broken English, as though parodying how an Asian American speaks:

"So. No raise money. No get bonus," Brownback said.

There were murmurs in the room. Is that how people from Kansas think Asian Americans talk?

"I meant no slight by my statement previously," Brownback said a moment later, having returned to his senses.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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