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Voyage to the Bottom of D.C.

Impeachment Debate
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  • By Joel Achenbach
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, December 20, 1998; Page F01

    Far below the impeachment debate, in the basement of the Capitol, in a fetid trash room next to a freight elevator, some unidentifiable liquids oozed along the floor in search of a drain. A bag of kitchen debris had exploded, spewing a few flecks of white stuff, perhaps instant grits, onto the concrete floor. A cardboard box marked "President's Submittal to Committee," empty and collapsed, poked from a mountain of debris.

    A porter -- L.B., he called himself -- sat on a metal chair smoking a Dutch Treat.

    "It's a whole bunch of garbage," he said wearily.

    The impeachment, he meant.

    "It's a payback type thing."

    On this historic, bitter day at the Capitol, opinions and rancor were not the exclusive possession of the elite. War and impeachment and scandal leave residues on every citizen. There were angry citizens shouting invective at one another on the East Lawn. In the heat of the moment everyone became a pundit, even the people on the periphery, the outside, the low places, the cellars and kitchens and machine shops.

    L.B. said he and the other basement staffers had been watching the debate on the television. The television is in a narrow bathroom that doubles as a men's locker room.

    Inside were a chef and a kitchen worker, and they were watching the final stages of the debate on an 11-inch black-and-white Zenith with a coat hanger serving as the antenna. The chef had a tall white chef's hat and the worker wore a heavy sweat shirt. Neither man would give his name, because as the sweat-shirted man put it, "They've created this situation where you talk to the press, they put something in the paper, then you get subpoenaed."

    The picture turned to snow, blizzard conditions, and he adjusted the coat hanger.

    "Hypocrisy. Very hypocritical," he said, looking at the scene on the House floor. "It's too many people up there who have skeletons in their closet to be pressing this man like this."

    The chef looked exhausted. He had one shoe off and one shoe on. He came to work at 5 in the morning.

    "I'm 60 next week. I've never experienced anything like this. I've never seen it go back and forth like that, like two women fighting over a man." He laughed. The allegations against the president are trivial, he said. "You know how these 12-, 13-year-old boys, when they first touch a girl, and the boy says, 'I touched her,' and the other boys say, 'Tell us where you touched her! Tell us!' That's what it's like."

    The Capitol is a place of many narrow passages and hidden rooms. It literally hums, a metallic purring, as though it were an organism. The humming comes from heaters, ice machines, refrigerators, air ducts, the background static of faint voices. There are secret places here, unmarked doors.

    You can wander around and find yourself not merely lost but disoriented. You can go through a door and find a passageway, newly renovated, utterly unmarked and empty, with blank white walls and gray carpeting perfectly vacuumed, and a short flight of steps will lead to a small hexagonal landing, no bigger than a tabletop, surrounded by six doors marked with numbers and nothing else. It's like a movie set, something out of the 1960s TV show "The Prisoner."

    After the vote the Republicans took an elevator to the basement and walked down a ramp and down another long stark corridor and finally piled into a room marked HC-5, filled with folding chairs, where they caucused, all of them wondering who might be their next speaker, and whether there was anyone who did not have his or her own dark places and secret histories.

    The Republicans, with their newly fallen leader, were as gloomy as the Democrats. They were shocked by Bob Livingston's resignation and did not seem celebratory about their victory on the impeachment vote.

    "It's probably the worst day of my life," said John Edward Porter, Republican from Illinois.

    "I thought it was almost a funereal experience," said Delaware Republican Michael Castle.

    The foreign tourists wandering through the place viewed the process with amazement. They couldn't believe that America was doing this.

    Lucia Garcia, Guatemala: "Everyone's losing right now."

    Jason Chang, China: "Waste time, waste money. Nothing good for the people."

    Phillip Chew, Singapore: "Here they have too much freedom. Anyone can accuse the president of doing anything."

    There were, even on this chaotic day, quiet spots in the Capitol. The Senate chamber, where an impeachment trial will be held, was empty. A few senators were on the premises, including Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who charged across the Capitol to the House chamber minutes after the first article of impeachment was approved. "Interesting" was all he'd say about the vote. Pressed on why he was going into the House chamber, he said brusquely, "I'll follow the Constitution. I think that would be a good first step, don't you think?"

    Workers have been painting the Senate chamber, as well as the office of the majority leader, Trent Lott (R-Miss.). And yesterday, as it happens, was moving day for the Senate library. Workers in blue uniforms were carting boxes over to the Russell Senate Office Building, emptying out an archive that fills two floors. An old industrial-strength metal staircase leads to an attic full of bound volumes of the Congressional Record, maps, atlases and a framed poster called "Shift of Civilization," showing a time line of the entire history of humankind, written early in the century by someone named Samuel Wyer. It announced:

    "Mentally, 'Shift of Civilization' means how man has shifted from cowering fear to conquering courage. This involves: the conquest of fear, superstition, prejudice, custom, intolerance, worship of fixed truth, and sublimation of debating activities into fact-finding activities . . . "

    A moving man with heavy work gloves, Ed Staggs, took a breather next to the poster and analyzed the Clinton impeachment.

    "If the man is taking care of the business for the country, that should be good enough," he said. "I think it's dirty politics."

    The moving crew had no television but knew what was going on -- the news moved through building as surely as if it had been sent through pneumatic tubes.

    In a hallway outside a suite of Democratic offices, Debbie Stabenow looked stunned. She's a congresswoman from Michigan.

    "It's unbelievable. It feels like 'The Twilight Zone.' I can't believe we're impeaching the president of the United States," she said. She raced away to vote against Article 3, a losing cause.

    In the basement, some Russians were disapproving.

    "It's a crazy Congress," said Marina Ponizovskaya.

    "This is very awful," said Lidiya Komarovskaya.

    They were thrilled, however, to tour the Capitol. They recently immigrated to Norfolk, and they love America.


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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