By Lena H. Sun
They're waiting for an elevator. It's not that they're going anywhere -- in fact, they'll be here for hours to come. They're waiting for an elevator to bring the day's first grand jury witness.
All eyes are on the elevator. The doors open. Out walks a woman in jeans and a denim shirt -- not a witness, just a juror for a different grand jury.
"I'm sorry to report that there's still no witness," WRC-TV (Channel 4) producer Joel Seidman says into his cell phone, muttering that his reporter will be on live outside the courthouse in two minutes -- with nothing to report.
For all the allegations about sexual encounters in the West Wing, tales of clandestine tapings and constitutional challenges over executive privilege, for reporters covering one of Washington's biggest stories of the moment, it all comes down to waiting for the elevator. At the end of a typical day, all that those in the stakeout have to show for their long hours of standing in the terrazzo hallway -- sitting is strictly prohibited -- is a detailed record of the times that jurors, prosecutors and witnesses arrive, depart, go to the bathroom and eat lunch. The highlight is when the jurors' lunch cart appears, its arrival announced by squeaks and rattles. A good day is when reporters know the name of the witness.
One recent day, courtroom artist Bill Hennessy Jr. sketched the most exciting figure of the morning: a tiny gray mouse that scurried out of a judge's chambers on the first floor and tried to escape before being captured in a trash can and taken outside.
"I can identify with the mouse," murmured Hennessy.
Nevertheless, reporters will arrive at the crack of dawn today just as they have each day Grand Jury 97-2 has met for the past 10 weeks -- it alternates between two-day and three-day weeks -- to grab the 10 spots that court officials permit on a first-come, first-served basis. Their job: to be there for the critical four to five seconds when grand jury witnesses and their lawyers step off the elevator, walk by the court security officer and disappear behind a six-foot-high partition. Their purpose: to glean some clues about what's happening in the secret proceedings.
It requires a little guesswork. Reporters are kept behind Copenhagen-blue velvet ropes in an area around the corner from the bank of four elevators. "I like it," U.S. Appeals Court Judge David B. Sentelle, who heads the three-judge panel that appointed Starr, observed in his North Carolina drawl on the first week of testimony on the Lewinsky matter. "It's like hogs in a pen."
From there, the reporters' view of the hallway leading to the windowless grand jury room is almost totally obscured by the partition. The assembled press is reduced to peeking for feet below the partition's bottom, the occasional heads of tall attorneys above its top and the witnesses' reflected images on the hallway's highly polished beige marble walls.
The task is complicated by the fact that on any given day, other federal grand juries may be in session along the same hallway. For example, there's Grand Jury 97-1, which is investigating former agriculture secretary Mike Espy and former housing secretary Henry Cisneros.
Some witnesses, like lawyer Vernon Jordan and White House aide Bruce Lindsey, are instantly recognizable. Others, like Lewinsky's former high school and college classmates, are not. Sometimes, reporters figure out that a witness is tied to the investigation only when they recognize the lawyers. By then, it's almost too late for the sketch artists, who have only two or three seconds to see a face before the back is turned.
"That explains why we never get the tie color," says artist Art Lien.
In rare instances, a witness will actually stop and chat with the penned reporters. When Jordan appeared early last month, he charmed reporters and court personnel by reciting several lines from "Purlie Victorious," a 1961 play and later Broadway musical that pokes fun at the cliches about white masters' devotion to their black slaves in the Old South.
"May your own dreams be your only boundaries," Jordan declared as he took the pose of the play's main character, a preacher named Purlie Victorious Johnson, spreading his arms and placing a hand on the shoulder of a deputy U.S.marshal, David A. Murray. He used the line to autograph an artist's sketch of himself and Murray.
More familiar to the reporters are the grand jurors themselves. But they are prohibited from talking about the proceedings. Reporters have given many of them nicknames: "Paris guy" was once overheard in the cafeteria talking about a trip to France; "ponytail man" sports elegant suits and wears his graying hair in a ponytail.
Since reporters are not allowed to ride the elevators with witnesses, they often race up and down the stairs from the third floor to the spot outside where television cameras are set up. In addition, reporters sometimes find themselves dashing between the grand jury and Court Room 4 on the second floor, where Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson presides over closed-door hearings related to the investigation.
All that running can be treacherous.
On a particularly busy day last month, for instance, Jordan was testifying on the third floor, independent counsel Kenneth Starr and William Ginsburg, Lewinsky's attorney, were in a hearing in Johnson's courtroom on the second floor, and Robert Bennett, Clinton's private lawyer, was the luncheon speaker for courthouse law clerks on the sixth. Trying to keep up with it all, Deirdre Hester, a CBS News researcher, tumbled down the stairs, severely bruising her right leg and ankle.
Even standing still can be debilitating. After seven weeks of standing in the third-floor hallway, ABC News producer Sheila Hershow, who has congenital curvature of the spine, was forced by back pains to miss work. An orthopedic surgeon wrote her bosses a note saying that "long-term standing on a hard floor" would seriously aggravate her condition.
Not surprisingly, footwear is a big topic of conversation. CBS News producer Kia Baskerville, a former Foot Locker employee, has been recommending a $20 Spenco insole that absorbs shock to the heel. NBC News producer Bob Witten, a devoted wearer, has dubbed the yellow, cushiony item "the official insole of the courthouse scrum crew."
The reporters and camera crews surrounding the courthouse draw attention themselves, as tourists wander by and gawk. Sometimes they even become bit players in the drama.
Bennett recently found himself striding toward a media horde at the end of a long hallway after a 90-minute closed-door hearing before Johnson.
"This is like 'Braveheart,' " he quipped, referring to the 1995 film in which Mel Gibson led rebel Scots in battle against the English king's troops.
As reporters crowded into the elevator with him, a young man squeezed in seeking his autograph. The pugnacious lawyer obliged, adding: "My advice -- be a dentist."
Staff writer Toni Locy contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company