By Joel Achenbach and Toni Locy
All conversation stopped at the stroke of 10. The volume went up on the TV, and the president appeared, silent for a moment, allowing another few seconds of uncertainty after seven months of waiting.
People at Sam & Harry's in downtown Washington were expecting tears. They were expecting a confession, a plea for forgiveness. They saw something else. They saw a combative president, an angry president.
Some instant reviews from a gaggle in one corner:
"He wasn't emotional enough."
"He was cornered."
The president had supporters, too.
"He kept it at a very high level," said Leigh Flajnik, an accountant. "Let's get past it and get on with our lives."
Stubbing out a cigarette, one man voiced no opinion. He was Charles Bakaly, spokesman for independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. "It's in the grand jury," he said. He and nine others returned to a private room lined with racks of wine. They were the prosecution team, eating a late dinner, heavy on the red meat.
The speech ended a long, strange, joyless day. In the nation's capital everything seemed to come to a halt as people waited, waited, waited for the president to say the things they weren't even sure they wanted to hear. The president was scheduled to speak after the children were safely in bed.
History will record it as a muggy, murky day in Washington. The sky was hazy, the air steamy, miasmic, a dog day if there ever was one. Everyone moved slowly, damply. Most politicians wanted no part of this town, this day, this scandal. The secretary of state left early in the morning for Tanzania, a 17-hour flight. The vice president had retreated to Hawaii, the most isolated land mass on the planet.
For hours and hours there was no information, only its weak substitute, opinions.
Journalists swarmed the city. They were in Election Day numbers on the White House lawn. They staked out all four entrances of the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse. They were on top of the Hay-Adams Hotel, from which the president's house looked like a little toy model. They reported things that everyone already knew. Lest anyone be unaware of the game-day atmosphere, CNN briefly put a running clock on its screen to show the elapsed time of the president's testimony. The network then thought better of the idea and the clock vanished.
Hundreds of people found themselves drawn to the sidewalk in front of the White House. Many wanted to be present for a day of regrettable history. A few prayed. A man with a bullhorn shouted, "I still believe in a place called prison!" The atmosphere was like that outside a state prison when a famous killer is about to be executed there are people of every conceivable opinion, every political stripe, but no one seems to be having a good time.
At one point a man shouting about Iraq sliced his throat with a screwdriver. He was led away to a mental hospital. After that everything returned to merely abnormal.
On the Street, Blood and Debate
The day began with electronic prepara tion. At 7:20 a.m. two engineers from Starr's office entered the federal courthouse carrying a stainless steel case. It was marked "KG-104, Secure Video."
At 10 a.m. the federal marshals started arriving. They put pieces of dark paper over the small panes of glass above the doors leading into the second-floor courtroom of U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson. They put tape over the slit between the double doors. Then they sealed the adjacent rooms, to ensure that no one would sneak inside and listen to the president's testimony through the thin walls. At one point prosecutors considered using a boombox outside Johnson's courtroom to drown out any sound from within.
Outside, a street preacher told anyone who would listen, "America has destroyed her own self. She has got herself ready for the pits of hell!"
The grand jurors were supposed to arrive by 12:15. The first on the scene, as usual, was a tall, no-nonsense woman nicknamed Business Lady by reporters. She arrived 45 minutes early. Soon came the rest, including one, a middle-aged man with a limp, who stopped to examine the daily schedule of the courthouse, as though he didn't already have an appointment with the biggest federal case in recent memory.
After that came the waiting. The jurors, unseen, used a secure elevator to go from the grand jury room to Johnson's courtroom. The testimony, by White House accounts, started precisely on time.
At about that moment, the street theater began outside the White House.
First came the men in heavy winter coats. They wore mittens and scarves and one carried a snow shovel. They had signs: "Blizzard of Lies Approaching." For the benefit of swarming cameras they sang to the tune of "Oh, Susannah":
"Oh he's coming from the White House with a girl upon his knee.
"He's going to the courthouse to proclaim fidelity. ... "
On the corner of 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue a small group of protesters gave away peaches, suggestive of impeachment. They carried a big sign: "Honk If You Support Impeachment." They got few honks, many angry shouts. A truck driver screamed as he passed, "If Hillary doesn't give a damn, why should we?" James Carville was spotted in a passing car, the driver of which offered an unsupportive digital gesture.
Jack Clayton of Mount Vernon, sweating as he held the "honk" sign, said, "I don't like the coverup of Whitewatergate, Fostergate, Filegate, Cattlegate, Chickengate, Monicagate and above all Chinagate."
Some bewildered French tourists emerged from a nearby bus. They didn't quite get it. All this was about adultery?
"In France, it's normal," said Pierre Verne.
A man named Bolaman Sarumi had flown in from Sacramento with a cassette recording of his new song, "Let Him Be," sung to the Beatles' tune "Let It Be." He had T-shirts and caps advertising the song, which he played on a boombox. Sarumi said that Clinton lied to protect Monica Lewinsky. "You do not go around having an affair with a lady and be broadcasting. That is ungentlemanly," he said.
Amid the showmanship, some people actually debated the issue. At about 1:30 in the afternoon a spirited, "Crossfire"-style debate broke out on the sidewalk, accreting a crowd. Brent Riley had come from Utah to protest Starr's investigation, an abuse, he felt, of prosecutorial discretion. Opposing him point for point was Campbell Thomson, a trade association executive wearing a red, white and blue cap and an "I Believe Paula" button as he listened to Rush Limbaugh on his Sony headphones.
"John Dean said there is a cancer on the presidency. I think Clinton has given it a canker sore," Thomson said.
Before the issue could be resolved, total chaos erupted. "Get back! Get back!" a police officer shouted. Someone said a man had a grenade. But it was not a grenade, it was a screwdriver. The man stood with his back to the iron fence that runs along the North Lawn of the White House. He slashed his neck with the screwdriver. He began to bleed, but not profusely. He shouted about Iraq. People were starving there. That was more important than the scandal, he said. He held the screwdriver under his chin, both hands poised to jam it up into his head. He shouted that he would kill himself. Two Park Police officers approached and gently talked to him. After a couple of tense minutes they managed to convince him to drop the screwdriver, at which point they instantly cuffed him and led him away. A Park Police spokesman said the man, 26, had been taken to St. Elizabeths Hospital and had not been charged with a crime.
On the Hill, Emptiness
Capitol Hill, meanwhile, could not have been more subdued. Congress is on summer break. Two of lawmakers' favorite watering holes, La Colline and the Monocle, were closed to business. The basement of the Capitol was dark, with only temporary lights hanging from a ceiling where exposed wires ran along its surface. Even the inner room of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde's personal office was gloomy and empty, with only a television blaring the news of the moment.
Lobbyist Donna Crane of the American Public Health Association had come to the Hill to discuss a substantive issue, the flammability standards of children's sleepwear. Naturally everyone she ran into in the Senate offices wanted to talk about Clinton, sex, confession.
"The city seems paralyzed," Crane said.
Also vacated. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was in Mississippi getting ready to leave on a Florida vacation. Sen. Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) was conducting what his office called a "staff-free drive-around" in the vast rural expanses of his home state.
There were still tourists, with opinions aplenty.
"He ought to get counseling," said Denise Weninger, of Slinger, Wis.
Arthur Ward, of Bridgewater, Mass., said, "At this point it's like the emperor has no clothes."
Virginia Bober, of Portland, Ore., had attended Foundry Methodist Church on Sunday, and none other than the president had shown up right behind her, with his wife. Bober knew that Clinton worshiped there and had warned her children not to say anything. She didn't want something embarrassing to happen. "You know how kids talk at school," she said. "They think he's bad."
At the Bars, Reaction
The president's testimony lasted until late afternoon, and kept going. The White House correspondents had to do their late-afternoon standups with still no word of what the president had said. And it rained. It rained torrentially. The sky opened as if in retribution.
Finally the president finished his testimony, about five and a half hours after it started. His attorney said he hoped closure was at hand. But the president still had to make his case directly to the people.
Would he own up to an affair? The trial balloons had been floated over the weekend. The buzzword was "inappropriate." He would admit to an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky, advisers had told reporters.
Thus it was that when the big moment came the confession had no shock to it. The biggest surprise may have been Clinton's tone.
At Bullfeathers the din came to a halt as Clinton appeared on four televisions. When he acknowledged his relationship with Lewinsky, a cheer burst from the crowd, followed by a crackle of catcalls and guffaws. Clinton's statement that he'd left a "false impression" was greeted with derisive laughter. His counterattack against Starr saying that now the investigation was being investigated drew a few cynical snickers. At the end, the crowd applauded the speech, some supportively, some sarcastically. Then the bar chatter began anew, drowning out the talking heads on television.
This didn't feel like the end of anything, just another strange chapter.
Staff writers Juliet Eilperin, Guy Gugliotta and Alan Sipress and researcher Nathan Abse contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company