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A Nation Stunned To Silence

Impeachment Debate
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  • By Tom Shales
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, December 20, 1998; Page F01

    Our long national nightmare? It's obviously not over, but at least it's taking a break. The first half of it went out with several bangs yesterday on a day of explosive television the likes of which have not been seen in years. If ever.

    ABC's venerable Sam Donaldson, the last man on Earth you'd expect to be at a loss for words, summed up the day in just one: "Sad." The House had impeached the president, Democrats had marched out of the chamber in a brief protest, Republicans refused to consider a motion to censure, their own choice to be the next speaker of the House resigned after being charged with multiple counts of adultery, and for good measure American planes continued the bombing of Iraq.

    The CBS eye seemed dizzy, the NBC peacock had ruffled feathers, and ABC experienced more embarrassing technical foul-ups as the networks struggled to convey all this news to the viewing nation on a broadcast day traditionally dominated by kiddie cartoons and football games.

    CBS made sure to cram its scheduled football game in no matter what it took. In fact, Dan Rather was forced to bid adieu to viewers at noon well before the House voting was complete on the four articles of impeachment (two of which passed). What immediately followed was not a football game but "The NFL Today," a time-wasting pregame show. CBS could have stayed with news coverage for at least 25 more minutes and not missed the kickoff.

    But "The NFL Today" is sponsored and impeachment proceedings are not. So it's really no contest for bean counters running the network. Rather was allowed to cut in from time to time with updates.

    The day had begun, of course, with a bombshell. Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) stood up presumably to join in the Republican trashing of Bill Clinton and in fact said Clinton should resign. Then, as Democrats in the chamber jeered that notion, he resigned himself, saying he would not seek the post of speaker and would give up his seat in the House next year. The surprise move followed revelations dredged up by Hustler (or "a pornographic magazine," as Rather tersely put it) to the effect that the married Livingston has had numerous affairs.

    Very movingly -- speaking rather quickly, folding and unfolding his hands before him -- Livingston said, "I believe I had it in me to do a fine job" as speaker and concluded with a declaration of gratitude to his wife: "I love her very much. God bless America."

    Boom. It was like the whole country got quiet and you could have heard a pin drop from sea to shining sea. This was a bizarre new subplot for the long-running impeachment miniseries, shocking and sorrowful, and right out of the blue on live TV. Clearly, this was going to be -- as they used to say on the old "Mickey Mouse Club" TV show -- "Anything-Can-Happen Day."

    We've had a lot of those lately. Perhaps 1998 was Anything-Can-Happen Year. Wouldn't it be wonderful to live through a Nothing-Much-Happened Week?

    After the shock waves subsided, debate continued in the House, most of it banal and perfunctory. The Democrats tried a parliamentary maneuver that would have sent the impeachment articles back to the Judiciary Committee and then attempted to get a statement of censure considered, but to no avail.

    Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who's been a blubber-faced pain in the neck through the whole ordeal, scolded the Democrats by saying of their statement, "It says he [Clinton] 'deserves censure' but it doesn't censure him." Democrats jeered anew; Sensenbrenner was being ridiculous.

    Coming up close on his heels was the absolutely insufferable Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), squawking for the second day in a row about "bills of attainder, bills of attainder," a term he was determined to repeat as much as possible. Buyer threw another fit in the manner of the Tasmanian Devil of cartoon fame, then asked Rep. Ray LaHood, the impeachment debate chairman, to call for order in the hall. If there was going to be order, he'd have to sit down and shut up.

    Prediction: Buyer will not become a regular fixture on the network news-talk shows, mainly because he has a heck of a time making sense and shouts to compensate.

    The man whose words take the cake, though, is Bob Barr (R-Ga.), a tiny attack dog from the ultra-conservative side, who spoke on C-SPAN after the session finally ended. And this is what he said, with an absolutely straight face: "I think the American people can be proud of what they've seen on the floor for the past couple of days." Whoa. Now we're in perilous territory. Now we're leaving the realm of mere derangement for the wilds of the dangerously disturbed.

    About a hundred Democrats were bused to the White House after the votes and became an audience for a brief South Lawn address by Clinton, who emerged from the building holding wife Hillary's hand and smiling -- though CNN's Frank Sesno swore he saw the president wiping tears from his eyes. Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, in brief remarks, repeated his new mantra about stopping "the politics of personal destruction," a phrase the Democrats obviously intend to beat into the American brain over the weeks ahead.

    Vice President Al Gore gave another somnambulant statement, saying that "this is the saddest day I have seen in our nation's capital" since coming here. The president could have taken the occasion to confess that it was his poor judgment and bad behavior that had led us into this wretched quagmire in the first place and graciously accepted responsibility -- but again all he did was say he was sorry for things he'd done wrong in his private life.

    Nevertheless, it was encouraging to see him looking robust and vigorous and ready to rumble. "We are doing well now," he said. "We are a good and decent country."

    Charles Gibson, former host of "Good Morning, America," returned to the ABC airwaves in late afternoon to take over anchoring chores from Peter Jennings, who'd seemed more interested in the Mideast story than in dull old American politics. Unfortunately for Gibson, ABC continues to be hampered by technical flubbery on the air, the result of the company's decision to lock out members of NABET.

    Thus while Gibson posed a question to commentator Bill Kristol, what ABC viewers saw was an almost interminable shot of George Stephanopoulos, just sitting there and, through no fault of his own, looking foolish.

    It could be said that many people took turns looking foolish on this insanely eventful Saturday in December, but before it was over, there were naturally those declaring that the experience could really prove to be a positive one for the country, and the system still works and all that kind of thing.

    A wide shot of the White House, meanwhile, revealed the Washington Monument in the background, undergoing restoration, looking like it was wrapped in bandages after having sustained a compound fracture. As a visual metaphor, that seemed one of the most eloquent statements of the day.


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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