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The Day the Impeachment Trial Went Dark

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  • By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, January 27, 1999; Page C01

    Journalists were shocked, stunned, appalled and otherwise exercised yesterday after the Senate pulled the television plug on part of the impeachment trial.

    The constitutional showdown that had become one continuous TV extravaganza -- long hours of debate punctuated by the "jurors" holding news conferences and blitzing every available talk show -- went dark Monday night. On a largely party-line vote, Republicans prevailed in closing the chamber to debate a Democratic motion to adjourn the trial of President Clinton. The Senate closed the doors again last night to debate whether to call witnesses.

    A "craven, chicken and offensive secret session," said CNBC's Geraldo Rivera.

    "The Senate has shut out the public it purports to represent," said the New York Daily News.

    "This vote will live in infamy," thundered Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

    Even more remarkable, in this leak-crazed city, is that Senate rules say any member who spills the beans can be punished, even expelled -- and the senators, at least for now, are following the zipped-lip edict.

    After Monday's 4 1/2-hour session, Senate ethics committee Chairman Bob Smith (R-N.H.) refused to comment, waving a letter he had just written warning the other senators to keep their mouths shut or face severe sanctions.

    Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) told journalists: "If I tell you what happened, they hang me," USA Today reported.

    Another senator invoked a different kind of violence, according to the Los Angeles Times, telling a reporter: "If we told you what happened, we'd have to kill you."

    "None of the senators was willing to characterize their exchanges," said the New York Times.

    The Washington Post came up with the tidbit that Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), author of the dismissal motion, began the session by reminiscing about the no-camera days of 30 years ago. But that was about it.

    Brian Lamb, the chairman of C-SPAN, which has been broadcasting the hearings live, said the Senate "has taken a step back on this issue. Even if it is more efficient, so what? I just think it's sad that politicians are saying, 'We can't get our business done in the sunshine.' "

    CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel have also been carrying the trial live. CNN Chairman Tom Johnson issued a statement saying the Senate's move "denies people throughout the world the opportunity to judge the fairness of the proceedings."

    If people weren't so tired of the Monica Lewinsky story, Lamb said, "they'd be stomping and beating on doors" over the Senate's move.

    No such uprising was detected yesterday.

    Not everyone is jumping on the indignation bandwagon. "We've gotten so used to having a window on the news that we forget sometimes more gets done behind closed doors," said Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "Sometimes it's better not to see the sausage being made. You get better sausage. . . . TV news sometimes confuses the public interest with their own competitive interest."

    Others were downright ambivalent. "I spent an awful lot of time in my career listening to the Senate debate, so I'm not under any illusions about how bloody fascinating it should be," said Brit Hume, Washington managing editor of Fox News. "I favor openness in all congressional deliberations. But please forgive me if I exhibit a lack of passion."

    Impeachment wasn't the only television story yesterday. In a bit of historical irony, the cable networks also tried to deal with Pope John Paul II's visit to St. Louis. MSNBC broke away from the Senate trial to cover the pontiff's arrival, while CNN and Fox News Channel stuck with the trial and featured the pope in a split-screen box. It was just over a year ago that the major network anchors hightailed it out of Cuba, where the pope was paying a historic visit, on the day when Americans first heard the name Monica Lewinsky.

    While the normally voluble senators have been gagged during the trial and sworn to secrecy on the closed sessions, they continued their round-the-clock talkathon yesterday. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) appeared on "Imus in the Morning," while Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) did the "Today" show. During a noontime break, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) held a news conference before the cameras. GOP senators Phil Gramm (Tex.), Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Mike DeWine (Ohio) followed suit during a mid-afternoon break, and other senators made the television rounds after last night's closed meeting broke up.

    Despite the media outrage over the closed proceedings, some tired souls were thankful for the chance to go home early. "At some point we still have lives to get on with," Hume said.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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