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Impeachment Hearings

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  • By Joel Achenbach
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, December 12, 1998; Page B01

    On the smell tour of the impeachment proceedings, there is a recurring scent of toner. It's that photocopier smell. The machines run night and day, replicating rhetoric.

    In the main office of the House Judiciary Committee is a Xerox 5355 for small jobs and a 5100, a real battleship, for the big ones. The subcommittees have their own copiers. You can't go anywhere without catching a whiff of Dry Ink Plus, which smells like . . . well, like styrene-butadiene copolymer, acrylic resin, carbon black, polyolefin and quaternary ammonium salt.

    Windows, meanwhile, are scarce. All this is going down in the Rayburn House Office Building, which has majestic hearing rooms and long marble hallways but is designed to be insular, the action taking place away from peripheral walls, windows and evidence of the outside world.

    The president is being found worthy of impeachment by men and women working in an almost hermetically sealed, denatured environment. They can barely tell if it's night or day. Information about the public at large arrives over phone lines and modems. Sometimes the staffers do venture forth, walking a couple of blocks to another even more tightly sealed room in the Ford Building where various supporting documents and appendices are kept.

    The smell the staffers talk about most is the smell of food. They can smell pizza wafting through the halls in the night. The staffers envy the TV crews, who seem to have a higher grade of chow.

    In the Republican offices, there is the smell of cigars in the evening. An indoor smoking ban is in effect across most of America but not in congressional work spaces. Over on the Democrats' side, there aren't as many smokers, but there are more congresswomen, a fine-smelling bunch who sometimes can cause perfume gridlock. "It's not one scent. One scent you can get accustomed to. It's the clash of perfumes," said one Democratic staffer.

    Part of the problem is that the Democrats are in the minority and have cramped, aroma-intensifying conditions. Maxine Waters, congresswoman from California, said, "You have bad food. The people eat doughnuts and pizza and sandwiches. The air doesn't circulate back there, the coffee is always too old, it's too crowded. It's a mess!"

    The toner can, in certain moments, overwhelm everything. On Thursday, the closing statement from Republican counsel David Schippers came in at 98 pages, double-spaced. But a staffer deemed that a waste of paper and made him redo it single-spaced, which presumably just concentrated the per-page spew of toner and heightened the overall toneriferousness of the office.

    When a witness confessed the other day that he only had one copy of his statement, committee Chairman Henry Hyde quickly offered to have a staffer make copies for everyone. The way Hyde said it, it was clear that he has no sense of toner conservation and probably doesn't have to worry, in his big fancy chairman's office, about excessive toner fumage.

    Yesterday, Hyde did it again. New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler was demanding that Republicans specify the perjurious statements of the president. Hyde said it was all on a couple of pages in some other document, and that he'd have them "xeroxed" – as an unreconstructed old-fashioned guy, he still has the courage to use the brand name as a verb.

    The real source of the toner problem is the structure of the committee. Copies have to be made for each of its 37 members. It's an entire breeding population, a good chunk of the species Homo sapiens, and every member has the privilege of speaking, lest there be any shred of suspense as to how this thing will turn out. A rule allowing a 10-minute "opening statement" by each member ensures a six-hour marathon of rhetoric. The committee is almost as big as a symphony orchestra, and instead of music it makes rhetoric, rhetoric that follows a score, with the Democrats uniformly supporting the president and the Republicans declaring that he must be impeached.

    Even so, there are interesting notes:

    "My understanding of the word 'is' is 'is.' "

    "We are not reversing any election. Bob Dole will not end up president of the United States."

    "Just the thought that the president was engaging in a 'Wag the Dog' scenario was chilling."

    "Mr. President, you have one more chance. Don't bite your lip."

    The impeachment inquiry is in the strange condition of being locked in quasi-grand jury mode even as the American people are ready for a sentencing. Said Hyde yesterday, "The accusatory body should not be the adjudicatory body." The committee vote sends articles of impeachment to the full House, which then will vote on whether to send the articles to the Senate, where the impeachment actually takes place. The Constitution (Who wrote this damn thing?) did not envision an age of saturation media coverage, multiple TV networks, an independent counsel, a year-long trial in the Court of Public Opinion.

    In the hearing room, the tall ceilings ameliorate the air problem, giving room for the vapors to reach higher altitude. There is excessive radiation from the 10 klieg lights set up for the TV cameras. The lights make everyone look normal on television and strangely lit-up in real life, which comes off as a kind of arrogance, the hubris of the overly illuminated, a brighter-than-thou posing.

    On the wall, not far from Chairman Hyde, is a framed painting of the very same Chairman Hyde. The heads are almost unnervingly identical in size, possibly an exact match, which surely must violate some general rule of portraiture. If Henry Hyde shows up for work one day with a mustache, it would be worth checking to see if the painting has a mustache, too.

    Behind the congresspeople are the staffers, and they move back and forth, whispering – what? – and passing out documents. They never seem to have enough room back there, the staffers, so they move sideways like crabs.

    They are all sniffing the same material, the same malodorous facts, and they come to different conclusions. The congresspeople disagree over what is impeachable and what is merely indefensible. They vow to vote their consciences. They finally vote on the first impeachment article 21 to 16, party line, as the afternoon grows late, and out there beyond the walls of the building, the day presumably fades to night.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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