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  • By David S. Broder and Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, December 17, 1998; Page A37

    On a day that was sure to find itself in future history books, Washington yesterday was strangely and disconcertingly normal.

    Or maybe it just seemed so, as Washingtonians, already braced for second impeachment vote in the history of the country, awoke to the news of imminent military action in the Persian Gulf. From the White House to Capitol Hill, there was a sudden, 180-degree turn in the focus of official business.

    Officials bone-tired from months of conflict over President Clinton's relationship Monica S. Lewinsky found diversion, if not respite, in the latest eruption in the longer-running conflict between the United States government and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

    Democratic congressional vote-counters temporarily set aside their charts to field telephone calls from the administration about top-secret military movements. Republican leaders wrestled with the spectacle of impeaching a president in the middle of a war. On television, one set of familiar talking heads was replaced by another set.

    As one White House official who has labored on the impeachment issue of late put it moments after the first of the missiles descended on Baghdad, "Now we're at war of a different kind."

    The Capitol was a virtual tomb, except for a few tourists. Aides to outgoing House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) finished packing up his belongings and waited for the movers. The House restaurant was ready for business with a special menu for the special session on impeachment, but shortly before 2 p.m. only three tables in the members' dining room were occupied.

    Outside on the lawn, six protesters -- unknown to one another until they met yesterday -- stood together to condemn Republicans for trying to impeach the president. Why were there so few of them, they were asked? "That's the $64,000 question," said Victor Lapides of Baltimore. "People are pretty cynical. It's a foregone conclusion he's not going to be convicted in the Senate."

    There was, perhaps, a similar attitude about action in the gulf that explained the absence of tension about the strikes. If there was no sense of the extraordinary nature of launching missiles and putting American military personnel in harm's way, it may have been, as Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo put it, "because we've been here before [with Iraq] and it worked out fine. There may be a false sense of security."

    Minds on Other Matters

    All around Washington, the routine of the day was honored. In the morning, the Commerce Department put out its report on housing starts and in the afternoon, Agriculture issued its turkey hatchery count.

    Flight attendants staged a news conference at Ronald Reagan National Airport to plead for standardized regulations on carry-on baggage and the Heritage Foundation collected a noontime crowd for a debate on the future of the global economy.

    For all the supposed press preoccupation with scandal, 15 news organizations sent reporters to the U.S. Conference of Mayors press briefing on homelessness and only five turned out to hear a pair of Democratic mayors argue for winding up the proceedings against Clinton. However, there were three TV cameras at the second session; only C-SPAN, at the first.

    Lawyers at independent counsel's Kenneth W. Starr's office kept an eye on CNN yesterday, watching as more Republican moderates declared they would vote for impeachment. "We're really out of this," said spokesman Charles Bakaly, "but we have an interest in this like all Americans have."

    Evelyn Lieberman, the former Clinton assistant who was blamed by Lewinsky for her banishment from the White House, convened the morning senior staff meeting at the Voice of America, where she is now the director.

    Lieberman issued orders to expand broadcasting in Arabic and beef up the coverage at the United Nations, because of the showdown with Iraq. Later in the day, she hosted a Christmas party in her office. VOA broadcasts continued to follow developments in the impeachment story, as they had been doing for the last 11 months.

    But in the McDonald's restaurant off the lobby of the U.S. Information Agency building, Herb Tyson, heading back to work, said, "It's tough [to explain the impending action against Clinton]. Most people in the world just don't understand it." And Tyson, who works in congressional liaison for USIA, confessed he had his own problems figuring out what the Republicans thought they would accomplish.

    "I was at a Christmas party yesterday," he said, "and [a Republican lobbyist] said, 'The people who are pushing this are the same people who predicted we would pick up 30 seats last month.' They're real smart!"

    A Sudden Departure

    At the State Department, John B. Craig, a career diplomat with years of experience in the Arab world, was sworn in as ambassador to Oman. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering presided over the ceremony. Members of Craig's family attended, along with friends and Arab diplomats. Missing, however, were most of Craig's colleagues in the Bureau of Near East Affairs. They had a different Arab country on their minds yesterday.

    At the Peace Corps, Director Mark Gearan convened a morning meeting to make certain volunteers in Jordan and Morocco were safe, but to most of the agency's employees, the most visible sign of a capital in the grip of crisis came when NBC's State Department correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, came to speak at the Director's Forum.

    As she sat on the stage, Gearan said, Mitchell was paged, and then paged again by her network. Before she could answer more than one question from the audience, she was gone. "I think my colleagues were fascinated by the slice on your-all's life," Gearan said. "The nature of breaking news."

    Ironies and Asteroids

    On Feb. 17, 1996, two days before the president temporarily broke off his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, according to her sworn testimony, NASA launched a Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft from Cape Canaveral for a two-year journey to the aptly named asteroid 433 Eros.

    Yesterday, scientists from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which built NEAR and is managing the mission, came to NASA to describe the drama that will unfold 140 million miles out in space at the same time in January the Senate may be weighing impeachment charges against Clinton. NEAR will orbit 433 Eros and circle ever closer to its surface, trying to plumb the mystery of its makeup.

    In words that might apply as well to a trial of the president, mission manager Robert W. Farquhar said, "We're coming up on the most critical phase of the mission -- rendezvous. We should have an exciting three weeks, and we hope it's not too exciting."

    For Tourists, Reminders

    The lines of tourists waiting to see the Vincent Van Gogh exhibit at the National Gallery of Art circled the rotunda, slowly inching their way around the Mercury fountain, banked in red and white poinsettias.

    But at 2:30, Tyler Cunningham, manning the ticket desk, pronounced it "a slow day," because he still had three tickets left from his allottment of daily admissions. "Tomorrow will probably be even slower," he guessed, "because people will want to see what's going on in the House. It would probably be a good day for people to come down and see the show," he said, not knowing that Republican leaders would soon postpone impeachment debate because of the missile attack on Iraq.

    Across Pennsylvania Avenue, at the National Archives, small groups of visitors moved through the dimmed lights to the case displaying original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They paused at the explanatory material, which noted that 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787 and "for nearly four months, they debated fundamental questions of government, power and human nature. . . . Once ratified, the bold new plan established a deliberate system of checks and balances, distributing federal power among three branches of government."

    William Torian, the security guard at the precious documents, said he has been asked frequently to point out Article I, Section 3, where Senate procedures for impeachment trials are specified.

    Jose Rodriguez of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, who had just made such a request, was asked what he thought of the current impeachment proceedings. "A mistake," he said. "This is a civil matter, and they're just putting politics into it."

    But LeaAnn Christenson, who just moved from San Jose to Columbia, and was taking her two daughters on a tour of historic sites, said, "I think they're doing what they need to be doing. We were on the White House tour this morning and the last thing our Secret Service guide pointed out to us was the John Adams inscription over the fireplace: 'May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.' We can't accept less."

    'You Have to Carry On . . . '

    "I had a pretty normal day," Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said shortly after Clinton finished his evening address from the Oval Office. "I made a couple calls on the present situation. I had my senior staff meeting and got my intelligence briefing and was informed this was happening. I went to my Christmas party. I exercised after you guys pilloried me about my weight."

    And then he summed up the attitude that was so much on display throughout Washington yesterday: "You have to carry on in an air of normalcy, knowing these are very grave and unpredictably surreal times."

    Staff writers Thomas W. Lippman and Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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