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  • By Michael Powell
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, December 9, 1998; Page D1

    Asa slides in, Zoe slides out of the interview chair. Rep. Bob Barr does his merry hangman turn, Rep. Bill Delahunt waxes witty with those hard BAH-ston vowels, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler sits atop a desk next to the impeachment hearing room and just keeps on talking and talking and talking . . .

    It's an all-impeachment all-the-time cable-network- politician-anchor-spin-o-rama at the Rayburn House Office Building this week. Hair gel is really helpful, television-pleasing blues and reds are just terrific and quoteable quotes are de rigueur and Asa Hutchinson, Zoe Lofgren and all the rest are prime-time players.

    Oh yeah, and another thing:

    In between television appearances, our representatives are squeezing in a bunch of hours listening to attorneys, academics and a former attorney general defend President Clinton against the likelihood that a majority of the House Judiciary Committee will vote to impeach him this week.

    This is the Impeachment Vote Foretold, and therefore a curiously suspenseless spectacle. We are left with the physical trappings of a really important story without much of the substance: Reporters nervously take notes for the sake of taking notes; congressional types bustle about looking very concerned and even more important; and the massive second floor foyer of the Rayburn building has been turned over to the television networks lock, stock and barrel. TV techies have stretched maroon carpeting across the marble floor and constructed three interview turrets on the balcony overlooking Independence Avenue.

    Politicians who wander into the makeshift studio visit the spin cycle's points of the cross. They begin with a turn beneath a statue of former House speaker Sam Rayburn, whose marbled lips are pressed closed as though in sepulchral disapproval of the media show below.

    Then handlers guide the representatives through a snaky jungle of wires and microphones onto the balcony, where they trade smiles and first names and engage in serious constitutional discussion with television anchors.

    The Republicans play both offense and defense. They are as one in asserting that Clinton is a skunk and a perjuring scoundrel who has disgraced himself and the country, but they blanch at the suggestion that they've prejudged the matter.

    The very idea shocks Hutchinson as he does the interview circuit.

    "I keep hearing that everyone has made up his mind." He flashes his very best wounded look at a gaggle of reporters. "I'm keeping an open mind, I really am."

    The Democrats have an easier task. They quickly, gladly, volunteer that their party's president has behaved like a skunk and a scoundrel and a cad. And they have a great idea: Let's censure him! "Censure is very condemnatory," Delahunt (D-Mass.) says helpfully.

    Inside the hearing room, it's more of the same. The usual characters carry the battle, wielding lines they've practiced in the media swirl outside the hearing room. There's Henry Hyde, with his snowy head of hair and his moose-jaw, and ranking minority member John Conyers, and their respective back benchers: Barr the Georgia Republican whose soliloquies usually begin with talk of impeachment and indictment. And Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the Democrats' own bull terrier, looking as though he has just ripped a piece of pants leg off a Republican's hide.

    Much of the morning session passes in adjectival battle: Do we say that Clinton's grand jury testimony in l'affaire Lewinsky was "evasive" and "misleading" (the formulation preferred by the perjury-averse presidential attorneys) or "false" and "lying" (as the impeachment-pumped Republicans prefer)?

    It helps to have a new legal face there, at least for a while. Greg Craig, with his mop of gray hair and his eager-to-please choirboy aspect, struck a lighter note than David Kendall, the president's ever-grimacing and combative defender.

    But Craig's wink-and-a-nod defense of the president, his "You know, I know, we all know what Clinton did, but let's not say what it was," wears thin with the Republicans. By noontime, when Craig offers that this case amounts to "an oath on an oath, he-said, she-said situation," more than a few Republicans roll their eyes.

    Nor do all the president's academics help much.

    Historian Sean Wilentz, in particular, seems a Princeton professor from Central Casting, the tasseled Tiger with the peachy skin, once-modish haircut and the tone of one who could instruct even such as these, if only they would listen. In his hands, the history of impeachment becomes something alive and vengeful, and rather distinctly liberal Democratic:

    "It is clear to me that any representative who votes in favor of impeachment but who is not absolutely convinced that the president may have committed impeachable offenses . . . will be fairly accused of gross dereliction of duty."

    As morning fades into midafternoon in the hearing room, Nicholas Katzenbach, 76, who served as attorney general under Lyndon Johnson and opposes impeaching Clinton, ambles into the hall.

    He walks by Nadler (D-N.Y.) holding forth for three reporters on the dastardly Republicans. And he glances at Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) pronouncing for two more reporters how unimpressed he is with the president's defenders.

    He smiles. He is, by his own admission, old, and this is no longer his Washington.

    "I can understand they're all wanting to talk about it," he says. "And I can understand why they are angry. You just have to wonder if they have any idea what they are getting into with this impeachment business."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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