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Not a Chapter in a Washington Novel

articles delivered Members of the House Judiciary Committee look on Saturday, as Chairman Henry Hyde, right, presents the articles on impeachment to Secretary of the Senate Gary Sisco. (AP)

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  • By David Von Drehle
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, December 20, 1998; Page A37

    The day began with an ordinary scene, reporters clustered outside a House caucus room awaiting news of a closed-door meeting. Down Pennsylvania Avenue, it proceeded rather routinely as well. Before an appreciative crowd on the South Lawn, President Clinton calmly touted his plans for Social Security, public schools and the rights of patients.

    In between, the president was impeached, the speaker-designate of the House of Representatives resigned, and a war ended.

    Here, in the last weeks of a dizzying year, was the dizziest day of them all. It was a day of memorable speeches and vacuous ones, of gestures grand and petty, of shock, confusion, the momentous and the banal, of sudden shifts in mood and shattered logic, of wrong notes and portentous chords, a day of heroes and opportunists in such a frenzy of maneuvering that they could be one and the same person from one hour to the next.

    So this is what history feels like before the historians get hold of it. Before they choose, interpret, compress, highlight and elide.

    History feels awfully confusing.

    "A disaster movie scripted by the Marx Brothers," Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) observed halfway through the day.

    In the paneled chamber of the House of Representatives, beneath the bas relief profiles of great lawgivers Solon, Hammurabi, Grotius, various popes Democrats fought ferociously through the morning for a measure that would censure the president in scalding terms. Clinton's behavior, they insisted, has been "reprehensible," "abhorrent," "egregious," and more. Clinton, they argued, had abused the trust of the American people and degraded the presidency.

    Then, as the afternoon gloom came on, they climbed aboard buses and rode to the White House, where they stood behind Clinton as Vice President Gore extolled him. Clinton, said Gore, will "be regarded in the history books as one of our greatest presidents" and the House Democrats applauded.

    Lanky Bob Livingston (R-La.), the speaker-nominee, delivered the news that he is resigning before live television cameras, proving that it is still possible in Washington to surprise. When he said, in a gentle, even tone, "I must set the example that I hope President Clinton will follow. I will not stand for speaker," there were no gasps resounding through the chamber because everyone forgot to breathe.

    Bob Livingston has come and gone so quickly. On an earlier weird day, last month, Livingston was nominated to succeed Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose power in the Republican Party vanished literally overnight when the November election went poorly for the GOP. Another weird day, last week, he was forced to confess to marital infidelity by an investigation funded by America's most notorious pornographer.

    The president didn't mention the bombing in Iraq, not in his South Lawn address. Since Aug. 17, when he confessed to having deceived the American public for seven months about his relationship with a White House intern, Clinton has tried again and again to defuse the impeachment crisis by delivering a dramatic speech.

    On this day, he took a new tack. He walked to the lectern arm-in-arm with Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had begun the day by meeting with the House Democratic Caucus, where she told lawmakers how much she loves her husband and listened as they insisted that he must never resign. She came only recently to the public fight to save her husband, but now that she is in it, she is at it day after day. All eyes were on her as they walked from the Oval Office; as always, people strained to read her and as always, they read what they wanted to read.

    But that was where the drama ended. Instead of apologizing once more, Clinton delivered a slightly updated version of his 1996 campaign speech. He talked about all he has done to bring Americans together and to heal partisan differences. He recounted the key points of his legislative agenda. Looking more relaxed than he has in months, he declared that "we have to have some atmosphere of decency and civility, some presumption of good faith" in American politics.

    Two hours later, the president ended the attack on Iraq that had begun Wednesday night, on the eve of the impeachment debate. It was a grave and momentous presidential address of the sort that once was the norm in Washington: entirely sex-free. It exuded power. Clinton had let slip the dogs of war, and now he was whistling them back to the kennel.

    The historians will figure it all out someday. You can't fit all this onto a page of a high school textbook or into two minutes of a documentary on America in the '90s.

    It might be the story of a runaway Congress staging a partisan coup. This was a refrain of the Democrats. Or it could be the story of the havoc wreaked by a salacious media mated with a consuming politics. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) hit both these themes in a passionate speech that was quickly hailed as the best of his career. "May God have mercy on this Congress," he intoned at one point, and at another he warned: "We are on the brink of the abyss."

    If Republicans write the history it might be a sad but crucial installment in the vital power struggle between the Congress and the presidency that began with the drafting of the Constitution and has continued, back and forth, up and down, for more than two centuries. "Only the Congress has the power and the responsibility" to discipline the president, Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) explained. The story might appear in the textbooks in the chapter on checks and balances.

    It could fade into the footnotes, a bizarre burst of unhappiness in a sea of prosperity, military strength, vanquished enemies, falling crime rates, rising employment and personal optimism. Or could it be that the Lewinsky case will simply be Washington's O.J. trial: all-consuming, distasteful, an industry unto itself and apparently never-ending whose chief manufacture is grime?

    And it isn't over.

    When the votes were counted, it was Rep. Henry J. Hyde's job to deliver the two articles of impeachment passed by the House to the Senate, where the next phase of this, this whatever this is will play out in the new year. The Republican from Illinois spent years building an illustrious reputation and saw it shredded in a matter of weeks by the impeachment hearings. Some commentators had said that Hyde might be the one man who would come through this untarnished, but this appears to be the scandal that no one survives.

    Hyde set off down long marble halls from one end of the giant Capitol to the other to the side he had earlier referred to sardonically as "over there on Mount Olympus" led by a flock of photographers and Republicans.

    When he reached the office of the secretary of the U.S. Senate, Gary Sisco, he shook Sisco's hand and began reading from a palm-sized note card a brief and very formal statement about the transmittal of these important documents. Then he thanked the secretary. Then thanked him again.

    Everyone seemed unsure what to do next.

    "Well, thanks!" Hyde said a cheerful third time before starting back down the long halls to the House.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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