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A Nation Finally Tunes In To Impeachment's Reality

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  • Sunday, December 20, 1998; Page A02

    Durham, N.C. | Sommerville, Mass. | Golden, Colo. | Chicago, Ill. | Venice, Calif.

    'Why Can't They Forgive?'

    DURHAM, N.C., Dec. 19 -- Charles Holloway never considered taking off work to watch the impeachment proceedings today. "I can't afford to. I got to work," said the short mechanic with a wiry beard and faded ball cap.

    Holloway, who runs a small auto repair shop with his sons in an old, run-down service station in one of this southern city's poorest neighborhoods, was testing the clutch of a white Toyota pickup for a Mexican immigrant and crawling under the dashboard of a red and black Chevy Blazer while President Clinton was being impeached.

    But history was being made back in Washington, and Holloway had punched the record button on his VCR before leaving home, vowing to watch the House vote later.

    Not that the outcome was ever in doubt for Holloway and many of his customers, most of them African Americans. The high drama in Washington, they said, was a partisan show with a predictable result. And despite the talk of perjury and constitutional oaths, the 53-year-old mechanic said it remained all about sex.

    "There hasn't been a man in the White House who hasn't had a sugar woman," said Holloway, breaking into raucous laughter.

    A farmer selling collards, turnips, homemade sausage and ribs from the back of a rusting pickup truck in front of his shop nodded in agreement. "Everyone has had an affair with someone," Holloway said.

    The farmer's customers added their support. "God forgives. Why can't they forgive?" asked Carolyn Smith, a retired nurse who stopped by to purchase some collards.

    "They need to leave the man alone," Holloway said. "The Republicans hate Clinton and they want him out of there."

    The scene at Holloway & Sons Auto Repair in this heavily Democratic city resembled a sketch from the Redd Foxx television comedy "Sanford and Son." Holloway played the lead role, dealing with Clinton's plight with humor, pathos and resignation.

    Holloway said he sees nothing unexpected in Clinton's effort to keep his sexual life private. "That's what you're supposed to do," Holloway said. A person having sex outside his marriage is not expected to tell his spouse, he said.

    The mechanic said he watched many of the proceedings Friday night and planned to watch the impeachment voting alone at home after working on the last car at his garage. Still, Holloway, who spent 30 years as an operating room orderly before opening his auto shop three years ago, said he knew what to expect on the tape.

    "When you've been in a hospital for 30 years, you know what's inside everybody," he said.

    -- Bill McAllister

    Once White Noise, Now 'It's Sad'

    SOMERVILLE, Mass., Dec. 19 -- The red, white and blue hues of the House chamber shone brilliantly today on hundreds of color television sets perused by holiday shoppers at an electronics store in this city just north of Boston. And the voices of dozens of legislators, their impeachment debate punctuated by emotional pleas and staid legalities, came in loud and clear.

    Eight hours a day, five days a week, television salesman Tom Pryor has been surrounded by history here -- or, at least, CNN's gavel-to-gavel broadcast of it. He hawks 47-inch color Sonys for $1,699 that stretch the face of Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He also sells 32-inch sets (on sale for $899) that pinch tight the faces of politicians.

    The constant broadcasts have been a source of sadness and disappointment for Pryor, 35, who said he appreciates the gravity of today's decision. Some of his colleagues, though, thought the televised hearings were a waste of time, certainly a distraction from the sales job at hand. But Pryor said the impeachment vote is particularly significant because it illustrates as much about the values of the country as it does about the morals of one man.

    "It's very important. The president is the most important person in the country, and he represents everything we stand for," said Pryor, as customers wove around name-tagged sales staff in maroon Circuit City shirts and through banks of droning video screens. "It's sad. We should be focusing our attention on other areas."

    He remembered how his parents applauded the impeachment of Richard M. Nixon -- "He was a liar, and they thought he got what he deserved." But this case seemed different. Day after day, hour after hour, it was hard for Pryor not to become accustomed to the multiple images and voices combining around him into a kind of white noise.

    A noise that finally seemed to come into focus today.

    -- Pamela Ferdinand

    'I Realized How Far Gone They Are'

    GOLDEN, Colo., Dec. 19 -- As the impeachment drumbeat intensified through the autumn with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report to Congress and the House Judiciary Committee's hearings on presidential misconduct, Roz Yocom subscribed to an e-mail alert service linking people who favored censure over impeachment.

    But the reality of the profound constitutional drama that culminated with today's House votes to impeach President Clinton did not completely register with the 43-year-old library technician from Golden until two days ago. That was when she listened with dismay to Republicans in Congress questioning the president's motives in launching airstrikes on Iraq.

    At that point, Yocom said, the possibility of impeachment, which had a kind of dreamy quality here in the Rocky Mountain West so far from Washington, suddenly came into sharp focus. She began to contemplate the full gravity of the crisis engulfing Capitol Hill, to understand how partisan the atmosphere had become in Washington and how determined Republican leaders were to remove Clinton from office.

    "I realized how far gone they are," said Yocom, a mother of two teenage daughters and an employee of the Colorado School of Mines. "You hope sanity reigns, but apparently it doesn't."

    With light snow falling on the Rocky Mountain foothills visible from her home and the temperature outside struggling to break out of single digits, Yocom watched the House conclude its two-day debate on impeachment and wrestled with her own mixed feelings. Yes, Clinton surely committed perjury and probably obstructed justice, she said, but removing him from office seems too harsh a penalty for offenses that revolve around sexual impropriety.

    Keenly aware of how momentous the event unfolding on her television screen was, and what a grave constitutional responsibility the framers vested in Congress two centuries ago, Yocom said principles seemed to have been abandoned in favor of partisanship. She dredged up memories of 1974, when as a 19-year-old fresh out of high school she lived through the near-impeachment of Richard M. Nixon and the process that left most people feeling better about government rather than worse.

    The process outlined in the Constitution, Yocom said, "was never meant to be partisan and I don't think Nixon's was." But, she added, "this one does seem like a witch hunt. It makes me afraid this will become a regular circus act. It's almost as if they are enjoying this."

    -- Tom Kenworthy

    'It's Bad for the Country . . . '

    CHICAGO, Dec. 19 -- Robert Sims, 77, has been around the block a few times, and there is not much he hasn't seen or at least heard of. He has lived through wars and Watergate, watched people go hungry during the Great Depression and seen Congress go off the deep end during the McCarthy era.

    "Man, I almost remember slavery," he said with a grin today while standing outside the Bridgeport Restaurant on Chicago's South Side.

    But he has seen almost nothing in his lifetime that has so wrenched the nation like the events that have unfolded on Capitol Hill. Never, he said, did he think he would see the House of Representatives vote to remove a president from office for lying about his sex life -- and a popular president at that.

    "To me, it's the biggest thing since Kennedy was assassinated," Sims said, harking back to the murder of John F. Kennedy in 1963. "That's the only thing I can even compare it to. It's bad for the country, really bad. I really think it's going to tear this country apart."

    Sims has kept up with the scandal since it became public nearly a year ago, he said, reading about it in local newspapers and watching accounts on television. But it has escalated overnight into one of the gravest national crises he has ever witnessed, he said. It is, he added, the ultimate act of cynicism in cynical times.

    "Why come every time the president gets in trouble we go to war with someone?" he asked, displaying cynicism of his own.

    "I just never thought it would get this far," he said, shaking his head. "I think it's worse than Nixon because it's so divisive. You got people mad at Congress and you got people mad at Clinton and that can't be good for the country. It's not good for the economy. It's bad. It's very bad."

    Sims, who has worked most of his life fixing and cleaning for customers in a Chicago hotel, does not care much for Clinton. And he cares even less for Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which brought the articles of impeachment to the House.

    Still, he said, he does not think Clinton will be convicted in the Senate. Either a deal will be struck between the White House and the Senate, he said, or Clinton will be acquitted. The damage has been done, though, he said. Institutions have been hurt. Faith is hard to come by.

    "I don't know," Sims said sadly. "Who do you trust? I just hope it all ends soon."

    -- Jon Jeter

    'This Is How We Are Spending Our Time'

    VENICE, Calif. Dec. 19 -- Jack Weinroth remembers he was playing poker at some airstrip in the middle of the Pacific when he heard that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died. He remembers, too, during a long American life, the assassinations, protests, wars, moon landings and the moment when Congress moved to remove Richard M. Nixon.

    "I felt very hostile toward that bastard," he said. "He was a real criminal."

    So when the House of Representatives voted today to impeach President Clinton, the question was put to him: "Jack, do you feel like you're watching an historic moment?"

    Weinroth turned away from the television set, whose screen was filled with members of Congress casting their votes. He paused for a long moment, took a drag off his cigarette, exhaled a cloud of blue smoke and said, "No."

    It is not that Weinroth doesn't give a damn. He does. But the whole long, bitter partisan odyssey seemed to have sucked the oxygen out of the room. His old beachside home here in funky Venice, built as tight as a wooden ship, is filled with books, art and piles of newspaper and magazines. He is as informed a citizen as the republic could want.

    The former Air Force pilot, who flew supply missions during World War II, is a member of the generation now heralded in books and movies as the real thing, the true grit America that got things done. Now 74 and retired, he was a high school history teacher for 23 years and taught thousands of students something about civics and history.

    But Weinroth apologized today to several younger people in his house for becoming, in his words, "such a cynic." The party-line vote, the endless recitation of sound bites of charge and countercharge have not left him with much choice.

    He got up from his chair, walked into another room and came back with a piece of paper. Like many older citizens, Weinroth writes important things down. He apologizes when he forgets a date or a name, asking for forgiveness for experiencing "a senior moment."

    Holding the paper in his hand, he said, "We are the most prosperous country on earth at the most prosperous time in our history, and this is how we are spending our time." He sounded a bit like the teacher he was.

    Then he read from his list: "There are 43 million Americans without health care. One in every five kids live in poverty. There's been no campaign finance reform. No tobacco legislation. And we're dropping 200 or 300 bombs on Iraq at one million dollars a pop. That's the real tragedy."

    The votes on articles of impeachment continued on C-SPAN, numbers appearing on the screen. Weinroth got himself another cup of decaf, smoked another cigarette, got his picture taken by a newspaper photographer. The day here was cool and gray, a winter storm. As his visitors readied to leave, Weinroth was thanked for his time.

    "Thanks for nothing," he says. "I'm going for a walk."

    -- William Booth

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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