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Scandal's Storm Cloud Dissipates Quietly

Clinton Acquitted

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  • By Joel Achenbach and Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Saturday, February 13, 1999; Page A1

    The senators had made up their minds, and made their plane reservations. Tom Harkin was going skiing, Judd Gregg was going fishing, John Breaux was going to Mardi Gras. Ben Nighthorse Campbell had a motorcycle on his mind: "I'm going to forget about this place, get on my bike and get in the wind."

    This was the case that just about everyone not working for an all-news cable television network wanted to escape. This was a jailbreak for the entire nation, the end of 13 months of captivity to All Monica, All the Time.

    The scandal seemed utterly spent yesterday. There will be some lingering resentments. The post-mortems will go on for a while -- the Sunday morning shows will tell us what it all means.

    But the raw energy was missing yesterday. There were few protesters at the Capitol, no sign of the angry mob that had squabbled and screamed on that tense day in December when the House of Representatives approved the articles of impeachment against President Clinton.

    If people were buzzing about the case around town, it was at extremely low volume. Scandal fatigue had reached epidemic proportions long ago.

    Gail Carter, an environmental consultant in Alexandria who had followed the trial closely, figured people at her workplace would be crowded into a nearby conference room to see the historic end of the trial. No one was there. The TV was off. She decided to forget about it and see the highlights on the evening news.

    "I'm just glad it's over and we can get away from talking about the president's sex life," she said. "It's closure."

    Monica Lewinsky managed to watch, but she was far away, in a friend's apartment in New York City. She was mentioned in the final reading of the articles of impeachment, but not by name, only as "a subordinate government employee."

    The lunch crowd was just trickling into Bullfeathers in Old Town Alexandria when the vote began. Conversation beneath the mooseheads gradually came to a stop. Necks craned upward. The kitchen staff emerged. The clerk announced the names, the votes. There were some, politics junkies, who were curious to know which senators would cross party lines, but most just wanted to see history. And they wanted to see it all end.

    Finally someone exploded: the bartender, Bob Bastedo.

    Clinton's a liar, he said. The president should be chucked out of office. "I'm just glad I don't have any children that I have to explain this to."

    Two words flashed on the screen: "Clinton Acquitted."

    "Hang the bastard!" shouted a salesman named Andy Horne. That triggered a round of squabbling.

    "The Republicans all year long have wasted our time," said Ruth Powell, standing a few feet away in her black leather jacket.

    Horne came back at her, "If he was not such a fat, lying weasel, they wouldn't have had to do this."

    "You're a Republican," said Powell.

    "I am not. I wanted Nixon out, too. If I'm ever arrested, I'm going to lie. I'll tell them that as soon as they convict [Clinton], they can convict me."

    An hour later, no one was talking about it. The pundits were on, but people weren't paying attention.

    Powell paid her bill and said, "The fat lady sung."

    Quick on the Draw at Fox News

    A few blocks north of the Capitol, the people at Fox News Channel dared discuss nothing else in the hours leading up to the vote, and for hours afterward. The cable channel has ridden the Lewinsky case to a huge increase in ratings over the past year.

    Managing editor Brit Hume found himself talking at one point to former presidential adviser Dick Morris, piped in from New York. Morris told him: "I feel like I'm in the last day of a long-running Broadway play."

    The vote was supposed to take place sometime after 11 a.m. At high noon, there was still no feed from the Senate chamber. Hume kept chatting away, filling the air. Where was this historic vote? Why didn't the Senate turn on its camera?

    "Do it! Do it!" shouted executive producer Marty Ryan. He leaped to his feet. "Dissolve!"

    The screen dissolved, as commanded, into an image of the chamber. The Chief Justice banged his gavel. They were going to do it.

    When the second article of impeachment went down to defeat, Fox slammed a "CLINTON ACQUITTED" graphic onto the screen a microsecond before CNN.

    "We beat 'em!" someone shouted.

    A Lighter Atmosphere

    A sad day, an awful day, a day of grief. These were some of the adjectives shopped around as the case came to a close. The mood proved otherwise. This was a day of tremendous relief.

    Early in the morning, television viewers could see Ted Stevens, a member of the Senate's Republican old guard, mysteriously racked with laughter as he handled a strange metallic device about the size of a small flashlight. Later, in the hallway, Stevens revealed what it was: a Sharper Image electric nose-hair trimmer. Stevens said he'd gotten it from a colleague across the aisle, Hawaiian Democrat Daniel K. Inouye, after Jay Leno had made fun of the Alaskan for touching his nose. "Those little hairs bother me," Stevens said. He gleefully demonstrated how the device worked. "If you'd like to borrow it sometime, you're welcome to," he added.

    A few minutes later, he voted to remove the president from office.

    Orrin G. Hatch began his day shortly after 6 a.m. Friday by reading Matthew 5:3-12, the Beatitudes, which begin, "Blessed are the poor in spirit. . . ." He reads the Bible every morning and highlights passages with a pink marker. The Republican senator from Utah is happy, he said, that the trial is coming to an end. He'll congratulate the president on being acquitted. He will even send him some inspirational music. Hatch himself writes the lyrics. Thursday, he played some songs for a reporter, cranking the volume on his sound system even as an aide reminded him that he was late to get back to the chamber. The voice of Santita Jackson, Jesse's daughter, boomed through the office:

    Put your arms around the world today

    Your heart will lead the way

    Be the one who walks that extra mile

    Do the things that make a life worthwhile . . .

    Hatch rocked back and forth to the song.

    "All of those lyrics would be good for Bill Clinton," the senator said after playing two more songs with similarly uplifting sentiments. "I will send him one of these when we get all the packaging done and get them shrink-wrapped."

    After Silence, No Surprise

    There were peak moments in the Lewinsky case, times when everyone was riveted by details, such as Clinton's initial, bitter apology in August, and the document dump in September when the shockingly detailed report by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr hit the Internet. The last few days, however, have been marked mostly by silence, with the Senate closing its doors for the final speeches.

    The only mystery was whether the Republicans would get the symbolic 51st vote for conviction, and that seemed impossible after Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania explained that he viewed the trial as a sham, that he was appalled by the lack of witnesses, and that he would vote "not proved," which he claimed had precedent in Scottish law.

    "Unheard of to have a trial without witnesses!" he said. When reporters said that "not proved" seemed a little ambiguous, he said, "I don't think it's a little ambiguous. I think it may be a lot ambiguous."

    Specter's announcement deflated the House "managers." Henry J. Hyde, knowing he probably wouldn't get even the symbolic victory, told a small gathering of reporters that the entire process had been dismaying. He said it had sapped his spirit.

    "I used to enjoy getting up and going to work. I don't enjoy it anymore. This was a downer from A to Z."

    The Illinois Republican, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, tried to muster a note of defiance. He'll run for re-election. He won't be chased into retirement: "I'm going to go out on my own terms." Hyde will soon be 75. Under House rules, he has to relinquish the gavel of the Judiciary Committee in 2001. A long and highly acclaimed career is winding down, and the congressman, usually eloquent, found himself grasping for an explanation of how Clinton escaped removal.

    "This man's charisma, and I don't know what it is, but it has immunized him from the normal codes of conduct."

    This was part of a culture war, Hyde said. "Certainly a battle has been lost," he said, "if not the war."

    His fellow manager Asa Hutchinson emerged from the case as a rising GOP star. But he, too, is ready for a break. He wants to step back, find time to think, perhaps even read a book. Bob Kerrey, the Democratic senator from Nebraska, sent him Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon," a book Clinton had cited in his notorious meeting with aide Sidney Blumenthal.

    Hutchinson wants to go home to Fayetteville, Ark., where he last visited weeks ago, flying in at midnight, only to be awakened at 6 a.m. by his wife, Susan, who informed him, "We have a yard sale."

    On his schedule Thursday, an alert staff member wrote: "DON'T FORGET!!!!! Valentine's Day is Sunday."

    Farewell to Media's Fixation

    Peter Merjanian was ready for the end. He works in public relations. The business of public relations usually involves getting attention for your clients. This has been impossible during the Monica obsession.

    "Anything you release now is destined for Page A20," said Merjanian, a vice president at Dutko Communications Strategies.

    He watches the front pages of the big papers every day. "Every once in a while you'll see them come up for air and have stories about welfare or foreign affairs, but the next day they're back to impeachment again."

    He was having lunch Thursday at the Capital Grille. Nearby was Bob Livingston, scandal casualty, the Louisiana Republican who was supposed to be House speaker.

    Without a Hitch

    The vote followed the script. The final motion and the final objection were crafted in advance. There were no last-minute shenanigans, no tricks.

    Even the bomb threat waited until the important business had been completed.

    "We have a problem in the chamber," John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican senator, announced to reporters and photographers in the stakeout area by the famous Ohio Clock.

    The Sergeant at Arms, James Ziglar, raced into the hall. A bomb threat, he said. Evacuate. Police officers shouted:

    "The stakeout is over!"

    "We have to break down!"

    "To the Rotunda!"

    But of course this was not going to be a case that ended with a bang. The bomb threat proved false; in the meantime, the senators did their interviews outside.

    The weather was strange, a mild, windy morning, something transitional happening in the skies, dark clouds racing low over the Capitol. Then it got warm, 74 degrees at Reagan National Airport. The record, by far. It was a historic day even in its temperature.

    Lindsey Graham, one of the most memorable House managers, the definition of folksy, gave a final summation to reporters in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building. He said many incredible things have happened to him since he came to Washington from South Carolina, but he knows his political obituary will start with impeachment. Suddenly he was interrupted by a booming voice: "My friend Lindsey Graham."

    He looked up: Bob Livingston. Livingston is still a member of the House and won't officially leave for a couple of weeks.

    "America moves on," the fallen speaker-to-be intoned. "If I had to attach a label to the decade, I'd say it was the decade of O.J. Simpson and Bill Clinton. Beyond that, I can only say we survived as a nation."

    Livingston went on his way, and Graham went his -- to a news conference featuring a half-dozen of the 13 House managers. One by one, they took their turns at the microphone. Yes, they said, the Constitution works; yes, the managers could work with the White House; yes, they were satisfied with their efforts; no, no bitterness.

    It was like the solemn interview with the losing coach after the Super Bowl.

    Henry Hyde went down an escalator, toward the garage, where a car would take him to the airport. A reporter pursued him. Hyde had one more door between him and his car. Security men helped him escape, shouting, "Close the door! Close the door!"

    They closed the door.

    Victory Without Gloating

    David E. Kendall, the president's personal lawyer, could not celebrate or exult or flash a victory smile, operating as he did under a no-gloat edict. He and his fellow lawyers filed out in a group, saying nothing. He hoped to go with his wife to New York City, and maybe see "Rent" on Broadway.

    He's been handling scandals for the president for five years. Starr stays in business and could conceivably still indict the president. When you are the personal lawyer for Bill Clinton, your work is never done.

    Within hours of the vote, the Senate chamber had been restored to normal. Workers removed the two tables specially constructed by Senate carpenters for use by the lawyers. They'll go into a warehouse in Alexandria, wrapped in plastic, preserved for their historic value.

    The workers took out the wires, the microphones, all the electronic equipment.

    The articles of impeachment themselves are on two legal-size sheets of heavy, acid-free paper. They have been kept in a safe these past weeks. The final protocol called for them to be quickly transferred yesterday to the National Archives. After all these months there may have been no decisive action, but a record was created. There are documents, audio tapes, videos, transcripts, multiple volumes of raw information.

    It'll be up to the historians to figure it out.

    Staff writers Frank Ahrens, David Finkel, Cindy Loose and Eric Wee contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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