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Clinton Trial Not Made for TV

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  • By Tom Shales
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, January 15, 1999; Page C1

    Who'd have thought that making history could be such excruciatingly ponderous torture? The looks on the faces of network anchors and correspondents yesterday appeared to say, "Please, Lord, get me out of here," even though the impeachment trial of an American president would seem to be about as big as a story gets.

    Rightly or wrongly, we expect important events to be good TV. The Senate's trial of William Jefferson Clinton is not, at least so far.

    CBS News hot-footed it off the air at 2:30 p.m., just 90 minutes after the Senate proceedings began, with anchor Dan Rather telling viewers, "If news breaks out, we'll break in." NBC and ABC offered affiliates continuing coverage or the regular soap operas. Tom Brokaw handed the anchor baton over to Brian Williams and NBC's coverage was simulcast on its cable outlet, MSNBC.

    "No one should assume that this is just a Kabuki dance that people are going through," former senator Warren Rudman told Rather just before Rather signed off. A Kabuki dance would have been a great relief. Since "decorum" was an issue of great concern to the Senate, even the cameras had to be decorous. For the most part, what viewers saw amounted to surveillance-camera coverage, one continuous shot of whichever Republican prosecutor was speaking, and speaking, and speaking.

    Cameras were controlled by the Senate, and there was no panning of the chamber nor reaction shots of senators. For all viewers knew, all 100 of the senator-jurors could have burst into flame or gone out for saunas and massages. Still the speakers spoke lawyers who are now members of the House and in relentless pursuit of Bill Clinton's scalp. Mostly what they did was repeat and repeat what had already been repeated in House Judiciary Committee hearings and in debate on the House floor.

    Senators were cautioned early that they had to sit silent and listen to this crud or risk serious penalty, even "imprisonment" (?!?!?!). One presumes they could get up and go to the bathroom without jeopardizing the Republic. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, presiding over the historic trial, warned at the outset that he might stand up now and then to stretch his back but that was about as much motion as was allowed other than the perpetual flapping of lips, of course.

    This was nightmarish television from a TV producer's point of view, and networks tried in vain to enliven the thing visually. NBC tried an inset of the Capitol dome for a moment not much happening there. Networks would put up biographical sketches of the House management team but that only worked while they were being introduced by windy old Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who showed surprising and uncharacteristic brevity with about 10 minutes of prefatory remarks.

    He quoted Shakespeare ("full of sound and fury, signifying nothing") and also quoted Sir Thomas More as he was quoted in the movie "A Man for All Seasons." More was imprisoned in the Tower of London rather than going back on an oath, Hyde pointed out. Was he suggesting that Bill Clinton be dealt with in the same manner? How about imprisoning him in the Washington Monument, especially now that it's surrounded in scaffolding?

    "The Senate is on trial as well as the president," Cokie Roberts told his royal haughtiness Peter Jennings on ABC. "They want the Senate to come out of this looking good." Ha! The Senate came out of it looking invisible. We couldn't see them. We didn't even really know for sure that they were there, except maybe during a wide shot at the beginning when Rehnquist entered and got the show, as it were, on the road.

    Rehnquist was wearing his custom-designed judicial black robe with the gold bands on the sleeves. He looked like the Emperor of the Universe from an old sci-fi B-movie like, say, "Plan 9 From Outer Space." Then came Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to introduce a motion about equipment and furniture being brought into the chamber. Or something.

    Ah, the majesty of it, the solemnity, the pomp of the panoply! One sat watching awestruck or rather, dumbstruck. And then finally just sleep-struck as the moaning droned on.

    Hyde said the whole idea of taking oaths was in fact on trial here. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who spoke for an hour, used the word "cancer" at least three times in an attempt to evoke John Dean's famous "cancer on the presidency" remark from the Watergate era. He offered a laborious history of impeachments through the ages, mostly the '80s actually (when three federal judges got the hook), and said that if Clinton isn't removed from office it will somehow be a setback in the struggle for civil rights.

    He spoke with heedless repetitiousness of alleged threats to "the rule of law" and of Clinton's alleged "perjurious, false and misleading statements." He also repeated a favorite Republican mantra, that perjury equals bribery, calling it bribery's "twin brother." As he talked, ABC tried to do an electronic zoom for a close-up; that is, they took the pool shot and blew it up so as to come in closer. Didn't work. All they got was grain and blur, and they soon gave up.

    (We're assuming this was an attempt to add visual variety to the ordeal and not just another technical glitch at ABC. Once, later, a Senate camera malfunctioned and zoomed in suddenly on Tennessee Rep. Ed Bryant's tie. It sounds like nothing but in context it seemed a most welcome diversion.)

    ABC's guest expert Jeffrey Toobin tried to be kind when, after Sensenbrenner's harangue, he told Jennings, "I don't think it was superb." Then he got braver and pronounced it "extremely labored" and "patronizing" to the Senate. Indeed Sensenbrenner, Bryant and Rep. James Rogan (R-Calif.) all seemed to be speaking down to their audience. This really was the Charge of the Lightweight Brigade, as unimpressive a roster of speakers as can be imagined.

    Rogan brought along videotaped excerpts of Clinton statements that have already been seen a million times by every living American and huge blow-ups of testimony from the grand jury and elsewhere. At one point, an assistant put on the wrong card and a viewer glimpsed words like "anus" and "groin." Aw-oh! We're getting back to that stuff again! Sure enough, Rogan was soon speaking of the infamous stained blue dress and other matters of huge embarrassment to everybody.

    When he'd misspeak as when he started to say that Clinton had committed "felony" Rogan would bark "strike that" and march on. It really was on the level of a bad college debating team. Watching it, one could hardly believe so much was at stake, that this was indeed a historic occasion. It came across as so terribly non-momentous somehow. It was deadly.

    Before signing off, and as if to justify doing so, Rather quoted a new CBS News poll that found only 20 percent of the American people are "following closely" the events on the Hill. And, Rather added, "One out of three Americans are all but ignoring this story." It may be three out of three before the story is over.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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