Lining Up to Be a Part of History
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 8, 1999; Page A16
Let it be noted that the impeachment trial of President Clinton began on a day of solemn oaths and "hear ye's," with history a mute witness, along with the slightly frozen Shelley Brenner, 18, and Jenny Lehrman, 19, of Philadelphia.
Present, too, were Susan Ponemon, 44, of Bowie, and her son Jarad Vary, 13; James Newbill, 67, of Yakima, Wash., and Jeff Westlake, 37, of Gaithersburg, who said he shouldn't have been there but couldn't resist the pull of posterity.
All were bundled, scarved, somewhat ruddy from the cold and excited as they stomped to keep warm on a blustery patch of lawn on the east side of the Capitol yesterday, waiting for hours for one of the scarce public tickets to the trial's opening day.
As the members of the Senate, snug in their historic, carpeted chamber, wrung their hands over how to proceed with the first impeachment trial of a president in 131 years, outside, in the waiting line for the public, there was an air of hope.
Sure it was a dire state of affairs, many of those waiting said, but the mechanism of government worked, and in a moment, if they were lucky, they might get a peek under the hood to watch its engine run.
Most got in, though the cogs of the government ran ever so briefly: The trial's largely ceremonial opening, in the ornate Senate chamber ringed by marble busts of vice presidents, consumed about 11 minutes in the morning and 26 minutes in the afternoon. The public was shuffled through in groups, each entitled to sit for only about 15 minutes in the Senate gallery.
No matter. To those waiting outside, it was the chance to be part of a morsel of history.
Brenner, a junior at Temple University, and Lehrman, a sophomore at Manor College, said they were making their first visit to Washington. They said they got up about 4 a.m., dressed as warmly as they could and were first in line at 6:45 a.m.
"It's exciting to witness something like this that's happening in our lifetimes," Lehrman said. "To be here in person, it's a lot more real." Brenner said, "I just want to get a pass saying that I was here."
In line behind them was historian Stephen Busby, 44, of Boston. "This is phenomenal," he said. "I'm here for posterity, you know. A lot of people here will be able to say they were here for the event."
Several people waiting in line were in town for the annual conference of the American Historical Association that began yesterday. For them, this was delightfully raw material.
One conference-goer was Newbill, who said he had retired 13 days ago as a teacher at Yakima Valley Community College. He said this was something that he didn't expect to see again. "It would really surprise me if the country would put itself through this again," Newbill said.
Another history teacher, Larry Gragg, 48, of the University of Missouri-Rolla, said: "You can't miss this. This only happens once every 130 years."
"I think it's, on the surface, wrongheaded," he said of the trial. "Nothing here meets the threshold that the founders intended for an impeachment process. But that doesn't mean it's not important. It's very, very important."
Jay Velasquez, 38, of Vienna, said: "This is what this country's all about. There's a great document that provides a process. We're going through it for the second time. It's a piece of history.
"There's not many chances when you can claim a little bit of immortality, to be able to be part of something like this," said Velasquez, a lawyer and lobbyist.
"It's kind of interesting that people say this is not good for the country, it's not sound. I think it's a great thing in the sense that you had very bright people draft a document that we are seeing working. . . . To be able to watch this play out, it's just fascinating."
Jeff Westlake, of Gaithersburg, noted: "You've got a Senate impeachment trial once every 130 years. Halley's comet at about once every 76 years. So I got better odds of seeing Halley's comet again than I do an impeachment trial."
As the day progressed into one of waiting, there was little sense outside the Capitol of the momentous beginning inside. The building sparkled under a clear blue sky, and the only sounds were the clanging of flagpole halyards in the cold wind and the rustle of brittle magnolia leaves.
Inside there was a sense of quiet uncertainty.
In the Senate chamber, when President Pro Tempore Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) gaveled order, Sergeant at Arms James Ziglar commanded all present "to keep silent on pain of imprisonment" the same warning uttered by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase at the start of President Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial in 1868.
There were other ghosts present in the chamber, the same place where Johnson's trial, and eventual acquittal by one Senate vote, unfolded.
Many of the senators' desks, for example, were in use in 1868, according to senate historians. New Hampshire Republican Robert C. Smith occupied the one that belonged to famed Republican Sen. Charles Sumner, the bitter opponent of Andrew Johnson who had been caned at his desk by a Southern adversary before the Civil War.
"What impresses me is the solemnity of the occasion, in an American context," said tourist Michael Carrafiello, 39, of Dayton, Ohio, as he sat with his wife, Susan, 39, and their two children, Joey, 4, and Luke, 8 months, under the Capitol dome about noon.
"We always hear how the British can do things in a solemn way," he said. "They have their coronations and their weddings. This would be on par . . . in the solemnity and importance of the occasion, and the way the country's attention is focused on this.
"Everybody's got one eye on it."
By day's end, members of the Senate and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist had been sworn in, but little else had transpired. Despite that, many who were present seemed fulfilled.
Todd Marks, 28, a law school student from Cincinnati, said, "I felt the weight of the moment."
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