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The First Day Wore On, On, On

Clinton on Trial

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  • By David Von Drehle
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, January 15, 1999; Page A1

    The trial of the president began yesterday with quotations from Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More, and there was much talk through the afternoon and into the evening of such lofty ideals as constitutionalism, justice and honesty.

    But as the day wore on and the prospect began to loom of days and days much like it still to come it was Dr. Seuss who crept to mind. All those senators, normally creatures of constant hubbub, hour after hour in their straight-backed chairs. "All we could do was to sit sit sit sit," wrote Seuss. "And we did not like it, not one little bit."

    The senators were extremely well-behaved: quiet, attentive, scribbling notes and studying exhibits. When the extraordinary event opened with a utilitarian speech by Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), followed by a dry 58-minute disquisition from Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), there was grousing in the press gallery. But hardly a senator so much as stifled a yawn.

    The senators all said this was very serious business, and that's the way they acted.

    And it was serious. Not serious like a great drama, except perhaps in the very first moments of the trial, when Chaplain Lloyd Ogilvie, in a voice as deep and rich as peat, offered up a prayer asking God to guide the Senate and the nation "through this dark time."

    No, the drama began to seep away when Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist recognized Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), and the man at the helm of a Senate confronting crisis rose to conduct the first piece of business on the momentous day. He asked permission of the members to allow additional furniture on the hallowed floor in the form of tables for the lawyers.

    After that, the day became serious in much blander ways. Hyde, who after a few literary references quickly bogged down in a recitation of the résumés of his fellow case managers from the House of Representatives, was as serious as a phone book. Sensenbrenner was as serious as a bank auditor. Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.), who ended the day six hours after it began, was as serious as a missionary.

    There may never have been a day when so many senators sat so still for so long. Those chairs: they are wide, sturdy wooden chairs with soft leather cushions for the back and seat. But they are as rigid as a headstone. They don't bounce, they don't recline, you can't raise them or lower them or tip them back on two legs.

    The senators sat sat sat sat. Only one of the hundred Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) missed any significant portion of the presentations. Such attendance is nearly as rare as impeachment. They gazed intently, they frowned gravely, they knitted their brows and they steepled their fingers. Nothing humorous, and certainly nothing surprising, was said. The only relief was a small glass of flat water with no ice brought by a page.

    Their stamina was remarkable. In some strange way, it seemed the older they were, the more dazzling their endurance. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), 81, scarcely shifted in his seat all day. Resplendent in a creamy waistcoat under his dun-colored suit, his shock of white hair spilling across his head like a comber on a storm-tossed sea, Byrd seemed less a man than the most lifelike oil-on-canvas you ever saw.

    Perhaps this is the payoff of one million committee hearings, town hall meetings, visits from boring constituents and rubber-chicken dinners. The ability to sit forever.

    It was not necessarily the fault of the House managers that the day felt so very long. The dirty little secret of most trials is that, unlike the Hollywood versions, they often go through many dusty days between flashes of excitement. And the managers are presenting a case that has been reported, rehashed and commented upon countless times already.

    There wasn't the tension of a good cross-examination. There were no steely witnesses to be broken. Senate purists were slightly scandalized to see video screens in the chamber, but here at the tail-end of the 20th century that phenomenon quickly lost its jazz.

    There was, in short, not much for the managers to do but talk. And talk they did. Some did so more interestingly than others. Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) presented the facts supporting the charge that the president obstructed justice, and he did so with a bit of folksiness and some narrative drive. He knew how to tell a story, dwelling on details to build a sense of certainty. Nothing in his case ever happened around 5 o'clock; things happened "at 4:54 p.m." or "between 4:58 and 5:22 p.m."

    "It's all breaking loose," he said at one point in his story. "The house of cards is breaking down."

    And: "On Dec. 28, another brick was laid in the wall of obstruction."

    But Hutchinson was the exception. When Rep. Edward G. Bryant (R-Tenn.) took to the microphone in midafternoon, he carried a three-ring binder as fat as "War and Peace" and plopped it on the lectern. And then he read every single page.

    His audience sat quietly throughout.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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