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Hyde & Co.: 37 Actors Trying to Write a Script

Waters House Judiciary Committee member Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), right, questions a witness Wednesday. (AP)

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  • By Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, December 10, 1998; Page A33

    Sometimes it looks like a good-natured pie fight. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) turns one of her patented blasts of outrage on Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) for appearing to have condoned lying 10 years ago, only to have Hyde charmingly ask "unanimous consent that the gentlelady be permitted to finish her attack on me."

    Other times it's trench warfare. When smiling Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) says the "White House spin machine" is offering "no new facts" in the case, he is not laughing. Nor is Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.) when he icily reminds Inglis that the GOP has provided nothing new, either, and "the presumption of innocence" remains "in favor of the president."

    Political scandal has a habit of creating instant celebrities out of the obscure lawmakers who sit on Congress's standing committees. It happened with Rep. Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) during Watergate, with Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) during Iran-contra and with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) during the Clarence Thomas hearings.

    Now the spotlight is on Chairman Hyde and the 36 other members of the House Judiciary Committee as they debate whether to impeach President Clinton for lying and other transgressions in his relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

    It is hard to know now how history will evaluate the actors' performance, and many members have worried openly about whether they will be shown to be statesmen a century from now, or buffoons. But for now, several almost anonymous members have used impeachment as a trampoline to launch their careers on a new trajectory.

    It is easy to surmise that prolonged national television exposure could give Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), the electric-haired freshman from the condos of Palm Beach County, a bright future as a talking head.

    "How many times does it have to be said?" asked Wexler late Tuesday, with just the right hint of hysteria. "How . . . do we, the Congress of the United States . . . set up a standard that says the president may have falsely told us an answer about sexual relations and about touching, and . . . we are going to impeach him?"

    But the dismal grind of marathon hearings, marathon meetings and high-stakes debate also adds gravitas to the careers of those who demonstrate the endurance, patience and pure brain power to drive the legislative train when the cameras aren't watching.

    Big winners in this category are freshman Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) who has probably studied the facts of the Lewinsky case more thoroughly than anybody else on the committee, and Rep. Rick Boucher (D), the rural Virginian tapped by the Democratic leadership to draft the Democrats' censure alternative.

    People in this second category, however, tend not to be big winners on television. Hutchinson, apropos of almost nothing, yesterday said perjury was not as rare a federal crime as some might think, noting that "in 1993 there were more federal perjury prosecutions by United States attorneys than there were kidnapping prosecutions."

    In America's eternal desire to identify winners and losers, it seems that Hyde, the silvery-haired charmer who is trying to run the show, is being tabbed right now as the biggest fall guy. In fairness, it was probably inevitable.

    He opened the impeachment season with a reputation that had no equal: He was an elder statesman in a party filled with ideologues, and an eloquent man whose advocacy of conservative causes was more than matched by his politesse and his determination to be fair to the president and to those who disagreed with him.

    Unfortunately for Hyde's star, the House GOP leadership chose that moment to collapse, leaving Hyde virtually without guidance while incoming Speaker Bob Livingston (La.) and other GOP heavies who have "every confidence in Henry Hyde" use him as an excuse to do nothing.

    Hyde has also picked up tarnish by getting into the committee's ideological dialogue of the deaf it was his idea to put together a not-too-subtle hearing on "the consequences of perjury" and even by losing his cool, usually when provoked by points of order from Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.).

    Scott, very bright and quietly combative, is one of five African American Democrats on the committee, all of whom have made it clear that they regard the case against Clinton as little more than a lynching.

    Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the ranking minority member, does not hide his disdain, and his slow-talking polemics can leave the impression particularly on television that he is just going through the motions.

    In fact, however, he is a skilled backroom brawler, and the instigator of the months-long paper trail that now forms the foundation of the Democrats' case for prosecutorial misconduct by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

    Watt's rage is so palpable at times that he sometimes appears to remain silent because his mother told him if he couldn't say anything nice, he shouldn't say anything at all. Waters, who does rage for fun, has had fantastic success letting it rip on TV.

    At one point in a particularly spectacular exchange, Hyde told her "this isn't going to be the Maxine-Henry Show."

    "Too bad about that," responded Waters. "I'd like that."

    Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), the panel's fifth African American, is a young lawmaker who can spin some lovely zingers. "I take issue with my colleague from South Carolina, who continues to restate the premise that there are no new facts," Jackson Lee said yesterday, after an Inglis foray. "Unfortunately, what I would offer to say is there's been no new thinking in this room."

    But Jackson Lee can also get mired in distracting sideshows, like her insistence yesterday on inserting the entire U.S. Constitution into the record.

    On the Republican side, most of the heavy lifting is done by a handful of very smart, committed conservatives whose position that perjury is an impeachable offense is what will drive the committee majority to approve articles in the next few days.

    Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.), a three-termer from central Florida's orange country, almost never makes a mistake, and will joust with anyone on the committee on any subject. Yesterday he dismissed the Democrats' contention that it was wrong to impeach the president in the House knowing that the Senate would never convict.

    "I believe we have an independent responsibility, under the Constitution, to make a judgment concerning the conduct of the president, and whether he should be impeached or not," Canady told the panel.

    Just as well-prepared is Rep. Bill McCollum (R), another Floridian, who told the panel yesterday that the Clinton case was not about "adultery and fornication," as one witness had contended, but about "perjury and obstruction of justice."

    The two Floridians' relatively quiet prestige contrasts sharply with television's two GOP favorites, Reps. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Robert L. Barr Jr. (Ga.). Graham is one of the House's true iconoclasts yesterday he angrily suggested that the Clinton White House launched a concerted smear campaign against Lewinsky but his independence keeps him from being a full player in the committee's inner circle.

    Barr's problem is that he demanded Clinton's impeachment a year ago, which may have made him prescient, but also makes him an outcast. Who wants the GOP's loudest advocate getting star billing from a supposedly impartial committee?

    The Democrats can also present a lineup strong on good minds and advocacy. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) is master of the one-liner and the only committee member who can trade quips with Hyde.

    When the panel started arguing yesterday about how long members' statements should be after voting impeachment articles, Frank suggested that any closing remarks members made "would substantially outpace the interest anyone has in hearing them."

    Frank is also good on questioning, when he prepares. Often he appears to rely more on style than substance, a failing of many Democrats, who generally seem less up on the evidence than their Republican counterparts.

    But the Democrats are more politically savvy than their opponents. Waters, Scott and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) are blindingly quick to take offense, a ploy that never fails to knock the Republicans off balance. Nadler in particular can be nastily acerbic, but sometimes thinks faster than he talks, causing him to splutter like a short-wave radio station.

    In the early going Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) was off running for the Senate, but now that he has won, he has returned to the Judiciary Committee for a last curtain call. He is an expert at carefully synthesizing opposing arguments, then gracefully kicking them into the garbage.

    Clinton committed no crimes, Schumer told a panel of witnesses yesterday. It would seem "natural and obvious" that he and Lewinsky would coordinate their stories to avoid discovery, he continued. To infer otherwise, he said, "strikes me as an overwhelming stretch am I wrong to characterize it that way?"

    Of course not, the witnesses said.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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