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Impeachment Debate

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  • Tourists Gape, TV Waits, And Calm Enfolds Capitol

    By Michael Grunwald
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, December 19, 1998; Page A27

    The eye-catching black-and-yellow banner cost him $150, and Lewis Schrager of Bethesda hoisted it with pride on the east lawn of the Capitol: "Maryland Stands Against Impeachment." But he had to admit that not all of Maryland was standing with him. Just his wife, who held the other end of the banner. And her aunt, who, it must be told, lives in Virginia.

    "I think this is the biggest threat to America since southern secession," Schrager said. "It's really scary stuff. But I guess you'd never know it by looking around here."

    No, not really. There were a few dozen protesters at the Capitol, including a Minneapolis mortgage analyst in a traditional Eritrean gown and an Alexandria technology consultant with a "Free Willy!" sign, but nothing close to a mass mobilization. In the afternoon, there were hour-long lines for the House galleries, a bit long for winter, but the only giveaway that something unusual was going on here was the array of television cameras outside. And even that was a paltry array compared to, say, the crush outside the federal courthouse the first time Monica S. Lewinsky testified.

    As the House of Representatives debated impeachment yesterday for the first time since 1868, while the American military unleashed its firepower on Baghdad, the scene around the Capitol bore a bizarre resemblance to business as usual. Staffers fast-walked through hallways with grimaces of deep purpose. Tourists posed for photos in the majestic Rotunda. Students on field trips asked their chaperones about the restrooms. America's most recognizable dome gleamed beneath a cloudless sky, the classic postcard tableau.

    Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled House prepared to impeach a Democratic president.

    "It's so hard to believe this is really happening," said Priscilla Houghton, a playwright who is married to Rep. Amo Houghton (N.Y.), one of the few Republicans who will vote no today. "It's been such a surreal week. I wouldn't think of writing a play like this."

    It was a strange day, juxtaposing the tawdriness of the on-and-off affair between President Clinton and his intern with the gravity of the momentous debate in the august halls of Congress. At one point, David P. Schippers, the GOP investigative counsel who prepared the case against Clinton, ambled through the Crypt, the burial chamber built for George and Martha Washington that now holds exhibits on Capitol history and a famous bust of Abraham Lincoln. Surrounded by 40 stately Doric columns built of Virginia sandstone, near the spot that marks the precise geographic center of Washington, D.C., Schippers offered his opinion of the proceedings he helped bring about: "A sad day. A hell of a sad day."

    Inside the House chamber, the galleries were never more than half full, adding to the aura of unremarkable routine; still, spectators were required to leave after watching for 20 minutes because several sections of the galleries were off-limits to the public. Only once, when an unidentified man wearing a turban and white robe shouted for Democrats to "stick together and be strong," did the crowd interrupt the proceedings. For the most part, spectators sat quietly watching democracy in action, as their elected representatives delivered 12 hours worth of high-minded speeches about Lies and Law and Duty.

    The eyewitnesses to history included 37 students on a field trip from Valley Stream Central High School on Long Island, several of whom said they learned a valuable lesson about the American system of government: members of Congress are, like, boring.

    "They all said basically the same exact thing, you know, like, over and over again," said Artemis Ginnis, a senior. "I think they just like to hear themselves talk."

    Oh, and one other lesson: members of Congress are rude. When one of them talks, none of the others seem to listen. "We were a lot quieter than they were," said Michele Seiler, another senior. "They kept talking, and getting up and walking around the room."

    The debate inside the chamber was echoed on the line for the galleries, on guided tours and in the bowels of the Capitol. To some Americans, this is an important referendum on the rule of law, a long-overdue effort to remove a president who flouted his oath. To others, this is still a soap opera about sex, a coup d'etat fueled by a salacious narrative about thong underwear and an infamous cigar.

    "This is crazy, man," said James Stewart, a porter who was carting bagels and coffee to a House cafeteria. "We all got dirt on us in this building, you know what I'm saying?" But his friend and co-worker Antonio Bracey, making a delivery to the laundry room, said he thought impeachment was the only fair response to presidential perjury. "Hey, if I lie under oath, they're going to lock me up," he said. "I say: Get rid of him."

    This argument has been raging for almost a year, and many Americans are sick of it. Still, everyone at the Capitol yesterday seemed to agree that something unforgettable and uniquely American was taking place here, that for better or worse, no other nation would even think about impeaching a leader and starting a war at the same time. David Sayne, a Baptist minister from Bethesda who supports impeachment, was so awestruck by the occasion that he waited in line to go back in the chamber.

    "I wanted to be a part of history," he said. "I think this speaks to the strength and greatness of this country. How many other countries in the world would go ahead with this?"

    Good question, said the collection of anti-impeachment demonstrators on the east lawn. (There did not seem to be any pro-impeachment demonstrators outside yesterday.) Some held signs handed out by the National Mad as Hell Campaign: "Enough is Enough." Beverly Roberts, a Washington attorney, strung up a makeshift clothesline with clothespins, shower curtain hooks and plastic tubing holding up individual letters: "NO HIGH CRIMES." Overall, though, it was a disappointing turnout for those who think Republicans are trying to overthrow a duly elected president.

    "The anger is building," said Steve Slatten, 30, a graduate student who runs a satirical magazine called Partisan Snipe. "If he's impeached, this place will turn into a zoo."

    It already looked like one to flummoxed foreign tourists such as Alexandre Miguel, a federal judge from Brazil. Politicians in his country have been removed from office, and politicians in his country have been embroiled in sex scandals. But he can't think of a politician in Brazil who was removed from office after a sex scandal. "We all think Clinton has, how do you say, personal problems," he said. "They are not the same thing as, what, political problems. In our country, we do not mix them."

    Those arguments do not wash with Meaghan Hainzer or Sarah Thomas, two fifth-grade students who visited yesterday from Somerset, Pa. They think Clinton lied and set a bad example for children. But they were more interested in the Capitol itself, in the marble staircases and crystal chandeliers, in the old Supreme Court chamber where John Quincy Adams argued the Amistad case, in a statue of John Winthrop that looked more like Shakespeare.

    Their verdict on the Capitol? "Awesome," declared Meaghan.

    "Freaky" added Sarah.

    Yesterday, it was a bit of both.


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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