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The Very Serious, Somber, Sad Day

Clinton on Trial

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  • By Kevin Merida
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, January 15, 1999; Page C1

    They boarded their team bus – more precisely the underground Capitol subway – and headed to the Big Game. From Russell, Hart and Dirksen they came, live senators springing from buildings named after dead senators. Their destination wasn't a game exactly, not at all, but the clogged corridors and stepped-up security and those giddy gawkers looking for Impeachment People gave the Senate basement of the Capitol a Big Game feel.

    Like the Super Bowl. Only bigger.

    Reporters' movements were so restricted on opening day in the trial of William Jefferson Clinton that the media types camped by the subway entrances and exits, looking for jurors to ask the Big Game questions: "What's your mood? How do you feel?"

    And the reply, over and over again, was the same: "Serious. Somber."

    Like it was a roll call vote.

    Sen. Christopher Bond of Missouri: "Serious."

    Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine: "Serious, solemn."

    Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa: "Somber."

    Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland: "Serious."

    Sen. William Roth of Delaware: "Serious."

    It sounded is if they had gotten together and decided their mood in advance (sometimes that happens on the Hill). Serious/somber. Not that the occasion didn't warrant sober reflection, a dropped head, a pained voice.

    But if his mood was "serious," Roth was asked, then why was he smiling?

    "Gotta smile," Roth smiled. "Gotta keep smiling."

    And so he kept smiling.

    There was a strangeness to some of these answers, a canned-hash quality that didn't seem congruent with the circumstances. Pat Roberts, the Republican senator from Kansas, proclaimed his mood to be "solemn, fair, serious," but in a singsong way. Like he was caroling. Like he had rehearsed his mood. Oh, no, he protested. "Or I wouldn't be solemn, fair or serious. Or impartial, that's the better word."

    Maybe ol' Pat was just joshing, having a little fun with the scribes, trying to shake his pregame jitters. In fact, he had a soul mate in playful singsong, Rhode Island Republican John Chafee, who acted as though he had just returned from the beach and was about to save a naval base in his state. Your mood, sir? "Ready to go. Tan, fit and rested."

    Certainly there were other words spoken yesterday that conveyed how hugely daunting it was for these senators to sit in judgment of an impeached president – "gravity" and "humbling" were favorites – but for some it was difficult to spit them out.

    John McCain squinted and stammered as he waited for the elevator that would take him up to the second-floor Senate chamber and finally came up with this:

    "I'm very, very, I guess, very . . . I take with great gravity this situation. I think it's a grave situation. I thought I would do campaign finance reform, maybe pass a tobacco bill. I never thought I would be here."

    Neither did Mike DeWine. The Ohio Republican imported some help, a team to go over trial documents, look for discrepancies, that sort of thing. His team included his son, a Cincinnati attorney, and the Greene County (Ohio) prosecutor, an old friend. So you could fairly say his mood was one of engagement.

    "Well, this is obviously a historic occasion," DeWine said. "It kind of hit me when I walked onto the Senate floor the other day and discovered it was ready for a trial. There were four TV monitors on the wall."

    Richard Durbin, the Illinois Democrat, had done all of his reading and was carrying around his dogeared copy of the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment report. "My whole life has been in preparation for this, in terms of my education, my experience, my law background. But it's still humbling. I'm humbled by the gravity of my responsibility."

    One senator humbled, another senator sad.

    "My mood? Unhappy," said California Democrat Barbara Boxer. "I don't know what else to say. I don't know how else to describe it. I want to do my work. I know what the people sent me here to do. I want to get to those issues and I can't. So I'm unhappy."

    Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvania Republican, declared he had no time for unhappiness and was too busy for trial mood reflection. As he raced down the subway corridor by foot (too harried and too in a hurry to catch one of those slow-mo team buses), he recounted his morning before the trial started.

    "I had lots of meetings this morning. Health care meetings, meetings on steel dumping. I just had a meeting with the nonprofit community. And we had a meeting the other day on Social Security. So lots of issues. I'm just trying to focus on my work."

    Whatever non-trial work was taking place in the Senate yesterday wasn't being noticed. The cameras and tape recorders were all trained on the Big Game people, and the closer it got to the 1 p.m. kickoff, the more crowded the Senate basement of the Capitol became. Some of the Capitol Police grew testy. Senators pushed their way through the tourist clusters and ignored chasing reporters and ducked into the elevators. The Senators Only elevators were filling up fast, and Ted Kennedy, the Senate's liberal stalwart, had to wait. Still, he said nothing about mood.

    But Phil Gramm did. Last week, the drawling Texas Republican had joined Kennedy in drafting a trial plan that got the proceedings started yesterday. "How do I feel? It's certainly an important day constitutionally. I feel fine."

    And how do his Texas constituents feel about his alliance with Sen. Kennedy? Leave it to Gramm to come up with the Big Game quip:

    "Maybe it's the beginning of the conversion of Ted Kennedy. He's lived a long time. Maybe he's decided to be wise."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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