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Senate May Be Formality's Last Refuge

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  • By Megan Rosenfeld
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, January 26, 1999; Page C1

    The gavel clanks and the sergeant-at-arms intones words that have been used at least since 1876. "Hear ye! Hear ye! Hear ye! All persons are commanded to keep silent, on pain of imprisonment, while the Senate of the of the United States is sitting for the trial of the articles of . . . "

    You know the rest. Using a 109-page manual compiled in 1986 by Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Robert J. Dole a document that drew on impeachment trials going back to 1798 (before 1876 the sergeant-at-arms said "Oyez!" instead of "Hear ye!") the Senate is daily following a script steeped in tradition and honed by ritual and formality.

    The people who watch this seemingly arcane pageant are seeing things you don't ordinarily see on TV like Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) reading from a piece of paper held in his hand instead of from a TelePrompTer. How old-fashioned! How untelegenic! Or 100 senators signing their oaths in a book. Forever. It's Mr. Manager this and Mr. Majority Leader that, and let us please remind everyone that all senators are to remain standing each time the chief justice enters and leaves the chamber.

    Formality is generally alien to our culture. We are a casual nation, and getting more casual by the minute. It's not just clothing, it's our first-name-only attitude, our tell-all conversation, our fast-food style, and our who-needs-history mentality. We are suspicious of formality, seeing in it echoes of oppression and phoniness. Ritual is too often the refuge of the pompous.

    These proceedings are a daily demonstration of formality. Some find them fascinating, like a 16th-century masque. Others say they are infuriating, a mere pose of seriousness grafted onto a frivolous and essentially political war.

    "The formality makes me angrier," says Karen Rollston, a California legal assistant. "It makes me even more disgusted at the waste of time and money."

    But Dan King, a senior at the District's School Without Walls, sees a purpose to the pomp and circumstance. "If you're going to talk about impeaching my president, I want you to follow every rule to the letter," he says. "In the House they didn't seem to take it seriously. They were just trading insults. It was more fun to watch on TV, but it wasn't serious."

    In this he unintentionally describes one of the primary purposes of protocol and ritual. "It's based on courtesy and respect," said an official in the State Department's office of protocol. Under that office's protocol the official asked not to be identified. "Whether or not we agree on the policies we may be discussing with another government, nevertheless the handshakes and formalities allow you to continue. At the end, you may say, 'I'm not going to sign that treaty, but thanks for dinner.' It allows you to leave the door open."

    Houses of worship have long been among the last remaining bastions of enforced formality, of proper dress and address, of sitting and standing at appointed moments. Even there the fissures have appeared, with fans of formality separating themselves from their more casual cousins, the ones who would call the pastor by first name, who dispense with old-fashioned language and rituals.

    To enter fully into the ritual allows you to worship more intensely, says the Rev. Richard Downing, pastor of St. James Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill. "The formality opens space for people to truly be themselves," he says. St. James serves a small congregation that hews to the old ways. The scent of the censer perfumes its small sanctuary. "Formality opens a dimension of life most of us never get to because we are too superficial."

    He tells as a cautionary tale the story of the ark of the covenant the point being that the person who reached up to steady the chest disobeyed the edict against touching it, and was struck dead. He also recalled recently walking with several other priests when they came across the Episcopal bishop of Washington, Ronald H. Haines. "All of us reached up automatically to take off our hats," Downing says. "I was surprised and gratified. We remembered even in this casual age his relationship to us. It is not that I am unwilling to raise objections to something he proposes in a meeting. It is that he is the bishop."

    The spiritual dimension of formality is not apparent to everyone. "It's so regimented," says Katherine Pullings, a classmate of Dan King's in advanced placement government at the School Without Walls. "You can't be yourself." On the other hand, she allows, "It shouldn't be lax. But the informal culture has a hard time understanding what's going on."

    Rochelle Gurstein is a historian, currently researching "the history of taste, standards, classics and exemplars and the dispute about them from the 18th century to our own time." Her first book was called "The Repeal of Reticence." She finds the formality of the trial an unfortunate contrast to what she views as a ludicrous crime. "This incredible formality about a subject so trivial and obscene will seem more surreal and absurd to the public," she says. "It's trivializing our idea of history."

    But Clinton is partly to blame for confusing the line between public and private behavior, she adds. Like other presidents who thought informality was desirable nicknames like Jimmy and Bill, worn with cardigans and boxers, not briefs Clinton did not create the image of authority he needed. It is perhaps not a coincidence that he has rarely been seen out of tie and coat since the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke.

    Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Michael Kahn, who has just directed the drama "King John," sees the pomp and circumstance from a more aesthetic perspective, especially as the proceedings are filtered through the square, flat box of television. "I direct these kinds of scenes all the time. I wouldn't have all 100 senators up there signing. . . . It tends to create a sense of 'Let's get on with the story.' It's one thing to watch a royal wedding, which you see with enormous sense of romance. . . . With the Senate you don't bring to it any kind of associations. No matter what you feel about the case, it tends to not make us feel the awesomeness of the ritual."

    And by the way, he says, unlike other ritualistic proceedings, "There's no music."

    But the more people like the government students at School Without Walls talk, the more they see the purpose of formality, even if it makes them uncomfortable. "I would rather have it formal than informal," says Kristina Swann. "When it's informal it's like laziness, and then your mind goes somewhere else."

    Or perhaps, like St. James's Downing, ritual offers comfort. "I kiss the bishop's ring," he says. "And we fight! Because I feel free to kiss his ring, I feel free to disagree." The Senate process "can offer security. We are protected by the process. To me that is comforting."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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