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  • By Tom Shales
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, December 19, 1998; Page C1

    We interrupt the impeachment to bring you the bombing. We interrupt the bombing to bring you the impeachment. We interrupt the interruption to bring you a digression.

    It was dizzying, daunting, depressing another day of mega-media overload in which viewers, if they wished to keep themselves fully informed, had to be air traffic controllers. House debate on impeachment proceedings against President Clinton competed for air time with the end of the second day of bombing against Iraq and the approach and beginning of the third.

    "I call this 'The Nightmare Before Christmas,'" said Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) in the eighth hour of so-called debate. Davis was referring only to the House wrangling, not the news explosion, but viewers who'd been through a day of being bounced back and forth were bound to share the sentiment.

    If you wanted to see the House debate uninterrupted, you really had to watch it on C-SPAN, which concentrated entirely on proceedings in the House chamber and didn't run them through the Punditizer.

    For cable's CNN, which made itself a household name largely through its coverage of the Persian Gulf War, editorial choices had to be especially difficult. Early in the day, CNN viewers saw that weird neon-green night photography shot of Baghdad on the left side of the screen and the House proceedings on the right. Sometimes the far right. A little later, CNN devoted a large amount of time, probably too much, to a protracted harangue against the United States by Tariq Aziz, Iraqi deputy prime minister. Naturally Aziz got around to blaming the bombing on "the Zionist clique" allegedly surrounding Clinton.

    Mistakes were bound to be made. CNN rushed over to its famous reporter Christiane Amanpour in Baghdad when it seemed that another U.S. bombing raid had begun. Amanpour had to report that all that had happened was the firing of a ceremonial cannon to herald the approach of the Ramadan holiday.

    Never mind this madness, let's get back to the insanity! Let's go to the floor of the House, where the deer and the antelope play where members of Congress stood up to denounce the telling of untruths and in their next breaths spewed galling whoppers about how they were searching their consciences to decide how to vote. Sure they were.

    Every time a member actually searched his or her conscience, a pig flew, an angel lost his wings and Hell froze over. Every time one of their minds was changed by the "debate," somewhere a turnip hemorrhaged.

    Most puzzling of the frequently quoted statistics during the day was probably the idea that polls showed most Americans against impeachment but favoring the idea of a presidential resignation. How to reconcile those? Perhaps most Americans want the president to go but don't want TV programming preempted for infuriating and repetitious congressional shenanigans.

    Clearly, this would not be a day of short-windedness. It took House Reading Clerk Paul Hays 15 minutes just to read the four articles of impeachment. What followed this curtain-opener was a mercilessly protracted reminder that while House members have to take oaths, too, they don't have to pass IQ tests.

    The purple predictability of the prose and the excess of rhetorical boilerplate challenged anyone to sustain interest. Many a Democrat referred to the Republican-fueled impeachment machine as an attempted "coup d'etat," and a couple of them, including Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), charged that the target was not just Clinton but every liberal social reform enacted since the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, including Social Security and women's rights.

    Democrats also relied heavily on the phrase "while reprehensible" when describing Clinton's private sexual behavior: "The president's conduct, while reprehensible," does not merit impeachment. The phrase was heard so often it brought to mind the famous "Seinfeld" episode in which Jerry and his friend George keep denying they are homosexual while adding the politically correct qualifier "not that there's anything wrong with it."

    As for the Republicans, they dragged so many "heavy hearts" up to that podium that it's a wonder there weren't more hernias and slipped disks. Some of the nerdy pit bulls from the Judiciary Committee, already the victims of overexposure, popped up occasionally to in effect stick out their tongues at the Democrats across the aisle. Smug self-righteousness was the order of the day.

    But not eloquence. Committee member George Gekas (R-Pa.) declared with great solemnity: "All of us in the ultimate must vote the ultimate sense of conscience." Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) said: "This is not easy. In fact, it is difficult." James Rogan (R-Calif.) took a courageous stand against perjury in general and in child custody cases, among others, in particular.

    Rarely has so much buffoonery produced so little in the way of amusement. Dan Rather of CBS News, Frank Sesno of CNN and others referred to the day's proceedings as "solemn," but were they really?

    The networks bumbled about uncertainly with so much news breaking out everywhere cutting away capriciously from the speeches for analysis or a quick trip to Baghdad (where all was quiet, we kept being told) or the White House. ABC's Peter Jennings was in an especially babbly mood, talking on and on with Sam Donaldson, George Stephanopoulos, Cokie Roberts and other correspondents. ABC News, hobbled by self-inflicted labor troubles, suffered technical glitches and snafus.

    At one point, Pentagon correspondent John McWethy appeared to be striking a blow on behalf of all the reporters to whom the supercilious Jennings has been snooty and rude over the years. He loves asking them questions he thinks they can't answer so as to look smarter than they are on the air. When Jennings referred to "the mission today" in Iraq, McWethy interrupted: "You mean the mission tonight, Peter?" Oh yes, Jennings said, that's what he meant, egg on his kisser.

    Speaking of eggs, CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield sat there most of the day looking like he was trying to hatch one. Puffing up his cheeks with the air of self-importance, Greenfield said the impeachment of a president is "something no one ever living has ever lived through." My, but that sounded impressive.

    As the day wore on, the commercial broadcast networks bailed out, offering their affiliates the choice of the House debate or the regularly scheduled soap operas maybe not such a big choice at that. Wide shots of the House chamber on this supposedly earthshaking day of American history revealed large numbers of empty brown seats dozens and dozens at times as the debate continued.

    One had to admire those who could work up some passion for their arguments and put them over with gusto.

    "We have the power to stop this travesty, to pull the curtain on this theater of the absurd," said Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) with great emotion but to little apparent effect. He used the rhetorical refrain "What have we become?" several times, ending, as he was gaveled to silence, with "What have we become? I fear, our own worst enemies."

    Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who's perhaps logged up as much TV time as anyone in the current Congress, was both pithy and powerful when he lamented, "We have become the laughingstock of the entire world because a sex scandal is being allowed to consume our tax dollars, our media, our judiciary and our opportunity to deal with the problems of ordinary families."

    He also said "GOP" no longer stood for "Grand Old Party" but for "Get Our President." And indeed, most of the Republicans looked defiantly unswayable by even the most elegant logic or eloquent arguments. As if to punish the nation as well as its president, they reiterated and recycled argument after argument already put forward during the Judiciary Committee hearings.

    And Arkansas's Hutchinson once again advanced the novel theory that while "perjury" is not included among the "high crimes and misdemeanors" that justify impeaching a president, well, darn it, it's a lot like bribery and bribery is one of those crimes! The mind boggles and, having boggled, goes into an advanced state of helpless hyperbogglement.

    "I think that nearly all that could be said has been," said Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) late in the day. He then proceeded to say much of it again. On and on it went, the world's longest mugging, with the conclusion of the debate and the actual vote scheduled to take place this morning. Anybody in much doubt about the outcome has to be either an optimist or a cluck, but we'll tune in anyway to watch it happen and to wonder whether the world can get any more addled or muddled than it seems right here, right now.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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