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Late in the Act, an Uncertain Entrance

Monica Lewinsky Monica Lewinsky returns from breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel. (Reuters)

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  • By Michael Powell
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, January 25, 1999; Page C1

    So she's back.

    Monica Lewinsky, and the dress, and the gifts, and the DNA, and the thong and the throng of paparazzi. But little excitement attends; there's a forlorn quality to it now.

    Most especially to Lewinsky, who arrived cloaked in bulky black, a baseball cap jammed hard over her exuberant tresses, those eyes lost in shadow. Her peculiar jauntiness of last summer, the improbable bounciness and the chin held high, yields to the scent of a woman hunted, if not haunted.

    A more prosaic haplessness attends to the House Republican impeachment project. There is now in the statements of the House players a sense of an endgame, of actors desperate to forestall a final act. They summon Lewinsky in the manner of a desperate opera director dialing a diva: She must breathe life into a flagging production; they waste few words arguing otherwise.

    "We have a burden," Rep. Asa Hutchinson acknowledges in that spare Arkansas twang. "This could end."

    Hutchinson is one of three House prosecutors -- along with Bill McCollum of Florida and Ed Bryant of Tennessee -- who show up to interview Lewinsky at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel, a grande dame of a hostelry. It's a measure of their public relations plight that their spokesman takes pains to assure the public that the representatives come bearing neither rack nor thumbscrews.

    "The idea that this is some medieval pressure session to intimidate her . . . that's nonsense," says Paul McNulty, the Judiciary Committee spokesman.

    The Republicans would frame it as crumpets and tea with three legal suitors. With maybe, just maybe, a few questions about the Big Creep thrown in.

    "I can assure you, as I will her . . . that we're not about to put her through the wringer, so to speak," McCollum says on ABC. "We're wanting to be very sympathetic to her. We're simply trying to get acquainted. We're not there to be the bad guys."

    It's hard to judge the effect of this latest turn, the dramatic summoning of the world's most famous ex-intern. The procedural tides, by most appearances, are running out on the Republicans. Most senators firmly believe that there will never be a two-thirds majority willing to oust President Clinton on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

    The Democrats plan to force a vote today to simply bring down the curtain and end the trial now. Even if that fails, as many now guess, the play could stall later this week, in votes on witnesses, or even on the bill of impeachment itself.

    There is, too, the question of the patience of the Republican senators. It's been their conceit to affect the air of avuncular older brothers, willing to give their junior House colleagues time enough for salvos and soliloquies. But the question of witnesses, in particular Lewinsky, could try their forbearance.

    More than a few Republican brethren have made it quite clear that they have no desire to hear a troubled young woman quizzed on sex acts and genitalia. They've read the bound volumes of testimony, have perused the 22 separate interviews with her. And these men and a few women recoil at the notion of a triple-X-rated reprise in the clubby well of the Senate.

    "I think it's very important from the standpoint of the Senate not to make a circus of this," Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama said recently. "We don't want to have a pornographic movie."

    The chasm between House Republicans and the rest of their party yawns even wider as one pulls away from Washington, to far-flung precincts where Clinton now tours as some favored Dionysian son.

    The potential Republican presidential candidates, in particular, see no percentage in playing the impeachment card any longer. They see Vice President Gore growing stronger in the glow of Clinton's improbable vigor.

    To those who would now invoke Monica! They say: Enough!

    "We're all sick of it," Gov. George Bush of Texas, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in the 2000 election, confides to Newsweek magazine.

    Even the Rev. Pat Robertson, for whom Clinton's iniquity registers as a near-biblical affront, has been heard to counsel the Republicans to dim the impeachment stage lights. It's over.

    Robertson draws comfort now from the prospect of a greater justice, if not in the secular here, then in the hereafter. "The American people are on trial in this matter," he warns.

    Perhaps more perilous for the House Republicans than such divine reckonings, however, is the sense that Washington, that amorphous official entity of pinstriped lawyers and lobbyists and hostesses and politicians, of Sunday talking heads and the Palm-sitting fixers, has tired of this drama. They seem to have concluded -- in Lindsey Graham's oft-quoted formulation -- that it is more Peyton Place than High Crimes and Misdemeanors.

    So the same Beltway punditocracy that warned last year that the American People would never tolerate a satyr president now takes to the airwaves with equal assurance to warn that the American People, like their president, want this ended. Now.

    There is little appetite, it seems, to leave the curtain up long enough to hear from the young woman who so transfixed them for so long.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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