By Joel Achenbach
Idealism is erupting all over Capitol Hill. It is suddenly clear that the members of Congress, for all their flaws, are true believers in good government. They carry around a Norman Rockwell vision of democracy. They work in a building with a dome, with marble staircases, statues of Webster and Clay and Jefferson, a place where you suddenly find yourself staring at a painting the size of a swimming pool showing the Founding Fathers signing the Constitution and Ben Franklin is staring right back.
The crisis of conscience, if it lasts, bodes ill for President Clinton. Any doubt that the prognosis is grave should have been erased when Sen. Robert Byrd took the floor on Wednesday and began speaking of his childhood.
"The old couple who raised me taught me by their example and their words not to lie but to tell the truth, not to cheat but to be honest. But what will parents tell their children today?" the senator said.
The old couple who raised me‚. . .
The president is in trouble when people start talking about their childhoods. Byrd was offering a reminder that the seven-term Democratic senator did not rise from aristocracy. His mama died when he was a year old. An aunt and uncle took him to West Virginia and raised him among the coal mines. He couldn't afford to go to college, so he pumped gas and butchered meat and eventually found work as a welder. That he is a lawyer is only because he went to night school, at American University, for 10 years after being elected to Congress.
This is the kind of person who, in an impeachment vote, could decide President Clinton's fate. Such people tend to revere the institutions of the republic. They get excited when they see the Jefferson Memorial. They say the Pledge of Allegiance with unusual gusto. With great fanfare they will give to a constituent a flag that has flown over the U.S. Capitol. Many can do as Byrd did Wednesday and quote from the Federalist No. 65, or from some other musty text of democratic theory.
There are things that every American knows: Politicians are schemers, connivers, hustlers, chiselers, wheedlers. They grope the interns. They cut deals in back rooms. They look you in the eye and lie. They obstruct justice. They're a bunch of lawyers who are drunk on power.
Some of that may be true, sometimes. But for now the Frank Cap ra version of Washington is on display. Everyone wants to be the embodiment of fairness and deliberation. Everyone is Daniel Webster (or, in Byrd's case, Cicero). House Speaker Newt Gingrich declared yesterday that there will be no scathing remarks about the president permitted in the chamber. ("Members engaging in debate must abstain from language that is personally offensive toward the president," he said.) Everyone's pledging bipartisanship indeed, nonpartisanship. Let's just do what's right, they keep saying. They say it with a kind of desperation. There are moments when the politicians don't even know what the correct political calculation might be, and so they have to go on what's right and wrong. A fallback position, in some cases.
"You can't ever divorce politics from it, but I think basically it's apolitical," Sen. Orrin Hatch said yesterday.
"The mood is one primarily of sadness," said a fellow Republican, Sen. John McCain. "And that's coupled with the understanding that we're all tarred by the brush."
Bob Graham, the Democratic senator from Florida, paused as he rushed to the Senate floor and pulled out a picture of his grandkids. There are nine of them. They surround the senator and his wife. He had the picture in his jacket pocket, where some people keep a schedule.
"The first week back [from the August recess] there was a feeling that we have to stick together, be part of the team. But that didn't take. This is an individual matter," he said. "Those are nine American citizens, my grandchildren, and I want them to feel that their grandfather did the right thing."
The publicly stated outrage began as soon as Clinton made his non-apology apology on Aug. 17 Sen. Dianne Feinstein, among other Democrats, said she felt betrayed but it didn't become a full-blown phenomenon until a week ago. That's when Joseph Lieberman, the Democrat from Connecticut, delivered a major speech on the president's immorality. Lieberman is someone who had a strong religious upbringing, someone who got excited about politics when he was 18 years old and Jack Kennedy was running for president.
"I didn't think I could explain to my kids why I remained silent at a time of such challenge," Lieberman said. "If we didn't talk about it, it would send a message to our country and our kids that it would be acceptable behavior."
This crisis of conscience could subside at some point. There may be some self-righteousness afoot that would not survive a close comparison with the individual's personal and political record. But for the moment it exists and impeachment looms. There's an increasing sense that this is a moment when a toxin must be purged.
The Starr report remained sealed in boxes another day, leaving a few more hours to imagine what loathsome details it holds.
"There is this real sense of foreboding," Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, said yesterday shortly after calling on Clinton to resign.
Perhaps it could be charitably said that the president is poised for his greatest comeback. He is poised in the sense that he is flat on his back, staked to the ground, eyelids sewn open at noon on a cloudless day. He is covered with honey. The fire ants are on the way.
Even one of his staunch allies, Rep. Barney Frank, seemed confused by how to proceed in the wake of the president's adulterous affair with an intern. Most Democrats don't think the president should be impeached, he said, but they do think something must be done. Normally a politician can face the wrath of voters and fail to win reelection. But Clinton can't run again. The Constitution will end Clinton's career in two years. "What's the moral equivalent of not reelecting a man who's not eligible for reelection?" Frank said.
The Lewinsky case is not a whodunit. This isn't Watergate, where people wondered what the president knew and when did he know it. This time the question is: How much is enough? When is something just too awful? What, exactly, is an impeachable offense?
The members of Congress are busy rereading their Constitutions. There's nothing in there about interns.
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