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  • On Hand for History

    By Gabriel Escobar
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, December 20, 1998; Page B01

    The Constitution, so much in vogue and so often invoked yesterday, hardly drew a crowd when the National Archives opened. The 211-year-old brittle parchment -- shielded from touch by four inches of glass, a deep vault waiting to embrace it in 66 seconds should danger arise -- seemed as physically secure and untouchable as ever.

    Just east on Pennsylvania Avenue, the line for the Van Gogh exhibit at the National Gallery was considerably longer than the line to view the national drama at the U.S. Capitol, where Congress was leveling the most awesome power against a president allowed by the Constitution. The decisive day of impeachment was captured by the inscription on the east face of the Archives, which proclaims that the building "symbolizes our faith in the permanency of our national institutions."

    But anyone expecting serious domestic untranquility would have been disappointed. Christmas is coming; errands and even the Redskins prevailed. Impeachment, while important, was a foregone conclusion. When pressed, people expressed embarrassment for the nation, anger at President Clinton or the Republicans, resignation, fatigue and occasionally even patriotism for seeing the republic work out its flaws.

    Washington and its suburbs may experience historic days like yesterday more intensely than other places, if not because of its enormous federal work force then by proximity to the seat of power and even the monumental nature of the city. For better or worse, the place is the physical manifestation of the Founding Fathers.

    "I thought we might actually see George Washington roll over in his grave today," Johnny Gaskins, 49, a lawyer from Raleigh, N.C., and opponent of impeachment, said at the first president's tomb at Mount Vernon. "Right about now, he could be rolling over."

    "It's ironic that we're here where all American history began, and of course, they're making history down there, too," Gaskins said, referring to Washington the man and yesterday's portentous work in Washington the city. "I just happen to disagree with the history they're making."

    Impeachment has only occurred twice -- 130 years separating the two politically seismic events. But Charles Allen still has faith. If American politics at times causes some to "look with terror on our turbulent freedom," as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, Allen was not running scared yesterday. The lawyer from Louisville had spent a moment at the Archives viewing the nation's magna carta, and with the weight of the day on his mind, he said the principles on the parchment had prevailed.

    "I'm in favor of impeachment, but sadly so," said Allen, 50, a Republican who lamented the most "rancorous public debate" he had ever seen. "I think the Republicans in that Congress would like to be somewhere else right now. But they are putting the Constitution above public opinion, which is where it should be.

    "I think it's giving supremacy to this," he said, pointing to the "shrine," as the guards at the Archives refer to the exhibition case that houses the Constitution. "I think they are doing honor to it, and not assaulting it."

    The daylong passion play at the Capitol echoed in different ways throughout a city and a region accustomed to the spotlight. In some cases, The Moment lived up to billing; in others, it passed unnoticed. Some people sought solace from the vote, an affirmation of the country's democracy. Others worried democracy had been undermined.

    "Sweet!" yelled John Geisel, 32, who was oblivious of the vote until informed. He was sitting on a chair behind a Lincoln Town Car, vodka on the rocks in hand, tailgating before the game at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium. "I'm tired of hearing about it and spending all this money to get him out of office," he said.

    Near Section A-21, Redskins flags on a Ford Expedition flapped in the wind. The fight song echoed from nearby speakers. Marti Coghlan had spent the morning listening to the impeachment debate on the radio. She shut it off before the vote. She knew what was coming. For the nurse from Manassas, yesterday was trying. She voted for Clinton twice and calls herself a liberal Democrat. As a first-generation American, she said she takes patriotism seriously.

    She had even cried. "I was bawling," Coghlan said, "that we've come to this." For her, yesterday showed the strength of the country's institutions as well as the president's selfishness and lack of judgment. "This shows how strong our Constitution really is," she said. "It's so very strong, we can overcome this."

    At the National Portrait Gallery, a building where doctors once tended to the wounded of the Civil War, Clinton supporter Kevin Buckley and his family spent the morning looking at the official portraits of all the presidents. "I think the situation is out of control," worried Buckley, 50, of Loudoun County. "It's much more partisan than it should be. There is a level of viciousness that is just ridiculous," he said. "It almost appears they are trying to destroy the institution, just to get even with this man."

    At Washington's home in Mount Vernon, Carol Roth was walking with her 6-year-old son, Christopher, when he asked: "Is this where one of the presidents was, that lied?" referring to the famous First Fib. Roth, a Republican from Stafford County who voted against Clinton twice, told her son: "I'm sure there have been many presidents that have lied, son. But there have been two that have been caught."

    In tricorn hat and breeches, volunteer Scott Wythe tended to a campfire near the entrance. Under his wool cape, in his vest pocket, was a portable television and an earphone. "I've got to listen to that vote!" said Wythe, a 38-year-old history student at George Washington University, checking in on the debate around 10 a.m. "I really could care less what happens to the president, personally. But I really am worried about the office of the president."

    Bethesda brimmed with holiday bustle, oblivious to the impeachment of a president taking place just miles away. Starbucks filled with morning joggers, all Lycra and laughter as Sinatra crooned "White Christmas." Minutes earlier, would-be House speaker Bob Livingston (R-La.) had announced his decision to resign in a startling floor speech. Across Wisconsin Avenue, shoppers picked through displays at a flea market in the chilly, windy morning. Cars and minivans crammed all six aisles at a nearby Exxon, fueling up for a day of holiday shopping.

    At the post office on Wisconsin, moms and dads, teachers and software consultants, lawyers and developers breezed through lines with stacks of greeting cards and last-minute Christmas packages.

    The talk of impeachment had been debated for days in the teachers' lounge at White Oak Middle School in Silver Spring, where Vicki Seed teaches sixth-grade English. Little drama remained for Seed. "I can remember watching the Oliver North trial. I can remember Watergate," said Seed, who moderated class discussions last week on the impeachment vote and the investigation of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. "But this is just rhetoric at this point."

    The post office door opened regularly, letting in bursts of frigid air. Asked why so many people left their television sets to conduct business as usual, Seed said: "I don't think the average person feels they have any direct contact to the process. I mean, we can call our congressmen and senators, but it really doesn't matter. The decision is in their hands."

    Some questioned the caretakers of the Constitution and worried about the country's image. At the Community for Creative Non-Violence, a 1,350-bed homeless shelter five blocks northwest of the Capitol, resident Bob Murray, 35, remembered that he had once shaken the hand of the now-impeached president after a church service. The president "has a heart and soul," Murray said. "The Republicans and the GOP have no soul. They're out for blood."

    "It's an exercise in futility," said Liza Dyer, 32, a volunteer at an annual food and clothing benefit at Bolling Air Force Base who was against impeachment. Countered Lou Cannon, 49, president of the D.C. Fraternal Order of Police and an advocate of impeachment: "I'm required to tell the truth, and as chief executive, [Clinton] should have no standard different from mine."

    The sense that history was being written was hard to escape inside the Newseum in Rosslyn, where larger-than-life anchors and members of Congress and pundits babbled from nine big television screens above row after row of screaming newspaper headlines. Jean Reid, an Alexandria schoolteacher with students in tow, had to catch her breath.

    "We decided ages ago that we were coming here, but we had no idea we'd be coming on one of biggest days in history," said Reid, 53, a lifelong Washingtonian. "This is such a sad day for all of us. No matter which side you're on, you have to believe it's tragic."

    To Reid, who voted for Clinton and favors censure over impeachment, the day will be remembered as a national calamity. For the nine students in Reid's charge, all from Cora Kelly Elementary School, the day was a field trip, a chance to try their hands at broadcasting through the museum's interactive displays. Behind and above them, unnoticed, the real newscasts droned on.

    At Arlington National Cemetery, solemn sightseers filed past the grave of one of Clinton's heroes, President John F. Kennedy, just down the hill from the former home of Gen. Robert E. Lee. A brisk wind lashed the cemetery, chilling tourists and whipping Kennedy's eternal flame.

    Some were outraged at the proceedings underway just across the Potomac River, saddened by the symbolism of the moment. "History is going to judge what's going on here," said Houston lawyer Adrian Martinez, paraphrasing a Kennedy line engraved in one of the stone walls.

    But not far away, pushing his two children up one of Arlington's endless hills, Brad Upton said history has already decided. A lawyer with the U.S. Army's judge advocate general's office, the Springfield resident said Clinton must be punished.

    "These guys all died to defend the rule of laws," said Upton, gesturing down the slope at thousands of gravestones marching into the distance. "We decided 200 years ago that we weren't going to have a king; we were going to have the rule of law. This is a great civics lesson for all of us."

    Staff writers Justin Blum, Bill Broadway, Dan Eggen, Ellen Nakashima and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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