2,000 Jam Shays's Meeting
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 16, 1998; Page A23
NORWALK, Conn., Dec. 15 – The tradition of the New England town meeting flourished tonight as 2,000 citizens jammed the town hall here to stand face-to-face with their congressman and plead fervently for the protection or ejection of President Clinton.
Rep. Christopher Shays, an independent-minded Republican who is part of a tiny, and dwindling, pool of House members who have not declared how they will vote on impeachment, stood alone for hours in the center of a broad stage, as the sharply divided crowd of constituents cheered, jeered and spoke their mind.
The senior class president of a local high school urged impeachment, saying Clinton had violated the lesson the teenager had learned from his mother that "you can't squirm your way out of situations when you do wrong." A Baptist minister urged compassion, saying that "all men lie" and that America was built as a haven for those in need of a second chance.
There were memories of McCarthyism. Memories of a low-level diplomat who had been thrown out of the State Department when his passport was found in the possession of a Prague prostitute. Most of all, there were appeals from partisans on both sides of the question for Shays to exercise care in making his decision.
Nowhere else in the country this week has a House member invited voters' opinions in such a public forum. The outpouring tonight came from a district that includes a string of southern Connecticut towns lining Long Island Sound where residents tend to be affluent and political allegiances divide nearly evenly among Democrats, Republicans and independents.
Shays began the lengthy evening with a half-hour prologue in which he shared his views with the 1,100 people who filled the auditorium and hundreds of others forced to watch via television in an adjacent room. Police turned away about 500 stragglers, including actor Paul Newman. Interstate 95 was temporarily jammed as constituents converged on this town of 80,000.
Unlike many fellow Republican moderates who yesterday announced how they will vote -- alleviating the weight of public opinion bearing down on them -- Shays appears to be striving to prolong the uncertainty about his plans.
One of a small band of Republicans who pledged to oppose impeachment early on, the six-term Republican said Monday that he was rethinking his position. His disclosure unleashed about 2,000 calls Monday afternoon and today at the two offices in his district, a volume torrential even by this week's congressional standards. The deluge caused the computerized voice-mail system to crash for a time Monday afternoon. About 3 in 5 callers today favored impeachment.
Tonight, Shays reiterated that he remains inclined to oppose impeachment but that his resolve no longer is firm. He said that he will offer no further public comment about his intentions until he casts his vote. The House takes up the impeachment question Thursday.
Shays plans to relay to Clinton the sentiments he heard tonight during a meeting scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. He is the only House member known to have requested such an audience this week.
Shays said to his constituents that he wants to tell Clinton that "the president's word isn't good in Washington" and that the president's behavior "is dividing the country in ways that are almost hard to comprehend."
If the boisterous crowd here tonight is any guide, those divisions run deep. As they signed in, about 800 said they favored impeachment; about 1,100 opposed it. "If President Clinton can be seduced by a young girl in a thong," a woman from Stamford shouted, "what would a sophisticated spy who wanted more than an IOU get from this president?"
On the other hand, Allan Hoving, 41, a Democrat from Westport, said that prosecutors had ensnared Clinton in a pointless "perjury trap" because they had been unable to find he had committed deeper crimes.
In the front row, Lou Mecsari, 61, who favors impeachment, clutched a copy of the Constitution and a legal dictionary, folded at the corners of the pages containing two words: misdemeanor and perjury. "In my line of work," said Mecsari, a product liability specialist who testifies sometimes in court, "I am under oath. I don't think, just because someone is on a higher level than me, they should be allowed to perjure themselves."
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