From a Distance:
Time for 'the People's Business' at Last
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 13, 1999; Page A29
LOS ANGELES, Feb. 12 – After the vote to acquit President Clinton, television viewers across the country saw Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott step to the podium and confess that the hallowed chamber was "tired."
"When I heard that, I mean, I just shook my head and laughed. Please. They're tired? I am so sorry to hear that," said Andy Parker, 44, an emergency medical technician and a registered independent, as he dashed this morning into a minimart to grab a cup of coffee on his way home from a 10-hour-shift hauling the sick and maimed to Los Angeles hospitals.
It is fair to say America is glad to hear that it is over. But now what?
For the 388 days, Clinton and his defenders, as well as his Republican prosecutors, have been saying the investigation, impeachment and trial distracted Washington from "the people's business." In interviews around the nation today, including renewed conversations with Americans who had given their views as the Senate trial progressed, the people agreed – insisting they very much want their elected officials to stop talking about what was hidden under Betty Currie's bed and start tackling "real problems."
Among liberals as well as conservatives, there seemed to be a rough consensus that a nation enjoying such peace and so much prosperity should use its vast resources and super surpluses to give more back to ordinary citizens. A few bucks for nursing homes. A couple more dollars for schools, the military, health care. Maybe even tax cuts.
"It's not brain surgery," said Parker, who should know, since he spends his days in ambulances. "They ought to get on with it."
Suzy Hines, 38, is a mother of three, a devout Christian active in her church, and serves on the school board in her home town of Newton, Tex. She does not think Clinton has lost the moral authority to lead – in her view, he never had it. But like her husband Nathan, 40, who owns and runs a nursing home, Suzy Hines said Congress let down the nation by occupying itself for so long with partisan posturing while other, more pressing issues wanted for attention.
With the impeachment process over, she offered, without hesitation, her list of what lawmakers ought to deal with immediately: "Health care. Education. And getting the military back in the shape it needs to be in."
The nursing home operates on Christian principles, the Hineses said, providing as much care as possible to people even after their money runs out. "But something has got to be done to make sure everyone is covered by insurance," she said. And she added that Congress also should pay greater attention to the needs of "financially disadvantaged" school districts such as hers.
"We're really hurting here," Hines said. "With the small tax base we have here, it's hard to raise taxes. It's hard for us to bring in quality teachers. It's hard for us to keep them."
Like Hines, Terri Johnson says it is not that she discounts the issues raised by the effort to impeach the president. But it went on far too long, and there is so much to be done.
"The notion of the president abusing power is a serious one and I think worthy of consideration," Johnson said today on her way to a luncheon in Chicago. "But did we need to spend four months on this when we knew what the outcome was going to be? No."
She rattled off the issues that now deserve Congress's attention: A patient's bill of rights. Health care for the poor. Violence in general, but particularly gun violence and domestic violence.
"We need to address the fact that AIDS is becoming a woman's disease," she added. "Children in our inner cities are undereducated and miseducated."
An administrator for a philanthropic organization, Johnson, 34, does not know where Congress's head is these days. More than anything, she said, the impeachment effort has exposed a public fault line between elected officials and their officials.
"It's my sense that Congress doesn't care about the larger public," she explained. "They cared about a small constituency, but all of us are not members of the Christian Coalition."
Matthew Andresen, 28, lives in suburban Cranbury, N.J., and is president of the Island ECN, a New York-based electronic trading floor that wants to put the New York Stock Exchange out of business. So if Andresen were running Washington, what would he make Congress do now?
"You mean after I was done giving them a taste of the back of my hand?" he asked.
Andresen wants the government to focus its immediate attention on the Y2K computer problem. He doesn't think government bureaucrats should try to fix it; he assumes they would bungle it as, in his view, they do everything else. He wants the government to start calling more public attention to the problem, to avoid sudden hysteria on Dec. 31, 1999.
"The government needs to take the lead in pushing industries to focus," Andresen said. "It's just such a massive task. It can't work without the wheels of government."
Another thing the government could do is relax its immigration laws to grant work visas to more foreign computer programmers. Andresen wants to hire techies, but he can't find any.
As for the future?
"I hope this fiasco will discourage other politicians from going down this path of a witch hunt. I don't know. Maybe it will even lead to less curiosity about people's personal lives."
Mimi Wesson, a law professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder who is on leave from her job teaching criminal law to write her third novel, is particularly concerned about the failure of Congress and the Clinton administration to keep the federal judiciary fully staffed. In Denver, she notes, the failure to create new judgeships and fill existing vacancies has left a court that is "staggering in its dysfunction."
"I'd like to see all the federal judgeships filled with qualified, nonpartisan appointees who would be quickly confirmed and could get to work," said Wesson, who interrupted her teaching career to serve as an assistant U.S. attorney in Denver.
With the long impeachment saga now completed, Wesson – a liberal Democrat who voted twice for Clinton – is puzzled by the enormous reservoir of support he still enjoys.
"He still seems to command a remarkable amount of loyalty from large numbers of people, but whether that translates into moral authority, I don't know," she said. "I'm sort of mystified by that loyalty."
In addition to filling judgeships, Wesson has a lengthy wish list for Congress and the administration as they return to governing. It includes addressing the problems of Social Security, campaign finance reform, control of international arms trade and reform of the congressional budget process.
Wesson also thinks it would be a good idea to complete a "second stage analysis" of welfare reform, to see not just whether caseloads are dropping but whether the children of those now off the rolls and working are being well cared for. Finally, and "curiously for someone with my politics," Wesson agrees that more attention should be paid to military readiness, in particular the question of recruiting, training and retaining well-qualified personnel.
Now that it is all over, Violet Kuhn, 82, worries about Social Security. "Not for me," she explained. "I'm okay, but for the other generations coming up. I believe in taking care of the future. We have to plan. If we are so selfish that we look at ourselves only and don't look at our children coming up, we are in bad shape."
Kuhn, a resident of the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Miami, is a Democrat who worked her whole life as "a lowly waitress," she said, and she never lost her admiration for Clinton because of the policies she believes he stands for.
"Education is something else," Kuhn said. "Our children have to have a well-rounded education, so they can be good leaders after all of us are gone.
"There's so much we need, and yet we are in better shape than we have been in years. But we've still got homeless people we need to attend to, and we've still got places like Appalachia where people still suffer like they did in the old days. We need good health care everywhere, but we really need it in those places. Health insurance is so expensive that a lot of people have to do without it, and that is not right."
Nick Cecola did not catch the final vote in the Senate, although he did listen to Clinton cheerleader James Carville on one of the early morning talk shows. What will happen to him and all the pundits is a question for another day. Cecola, 37, an investor who lives on his trawler in Marina del Rey, Calif., was worrying instead about the Dow Jones industrial average.
"The market sucks," he sighed.
A Republican, Cecola thinks that it is only fair to return some of the federal surplus to the taxpayers. "It's not Clinton's money, it's not Congress's money, it's our money. We should get some of it back."
And if there is some left over? "Sure, roads. I was just in Europe, and their roads are better. Education? I love education, but it sounds like everybody's for education. I like national defense, too. It's white-collar welfare. Good for the economy. I like it. I guess the idea is to find a happy medium somewhere and go with it."
Staff writers Sue Anne Pressley in Miami, Paul Duggan in Austin, Tom Kenworthy in Denver, Michael Grunwald in New York and Jon Jeter in Chicago contributed to this report.
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