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Senators Consider Vows of Silence

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  • By Peter Baker and Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Saturday, January 16, 1999; Page A14

    Like medieval monks, many of the jurors, er, "triers of fact," in President Clinton's impeachment trial have taken a vow of silence or at least "semi-silence" until the verdict's in.

    This is no small feat in the U.S. Senate, whose residents got where they are because they can talk the talk. Sitting in silence while the House prosecutors make the case against Clinton is bad enough, but walking off into the sunset like Gary Cooper well, that's a bit much to expect.

    Still, a Republican task force has been deputized by Majority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.) to decide whether to write guidelines for a gag rule. According to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), there is a consensus, at least in the task force, that "we should not be talking evidence."

    Some senators have also attempted to shame their colleagues. Rookie Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) told the Capitol newspaper the Hill that "there's a reluctance for a senator to pass up a chance" to be on television talk shows, because "we're in a business where name recognition is important to your success." But he would not be appearing on talk shows, he said.

    Others were not so finicky. Perhaps it was Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist agreeing with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) that the Senate was not properly a jury (Harkin preferred "triers of fact"), or maybe they just wanted the publicity, but the pool of available talking heads has shrunk only a little.

    Eighteen senators a full complement are appearing on the Sunday talk shows this weekend, and the regular quack-quack after the trial adjourns in the evening is as intense as ever.

    But some people really are taking a somewhat serious vow of silence. In fact, an informal count by The Washington Post turned up at least 15 senators who have ratcheted back their commentary to some degree. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a nonstop talker for the past three weeks, issued a press release yesterday saying, "Now that I am serving as a juror . . . I do not intend to make any further public statements."

    Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), said his policy is "no" to talking about "the merits," but "yes" to "procedure" and "structure." Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) signed off the chat circuit a half-hour before the trial opened, and now won't even talk to his staff.

    Then there was the moral equivalent of silence exercised by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who issued a press release Dec. 21 saying he hasn't "discussed his intentions" and "wasn't going to." Spokeswoman Nancy Ives said this is causing networks to blow him off, costly to a declared presidential candidate who needs all the talking head time he can get.

    But he means it. One unsuspecting reporter asked him yesterday about calling witnesses in the impeachment trial. "I don't think it's come to a head yet," McCain replied. The reporter tried again: Did the House have a higher burden of proof than the president?

    "I think it's like any trial," McCain said. "You have to make a case."

    Yes?

    "Once you hear the evidence, you make a decision."

    Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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