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A Fifth of Senate Joins Sunday Gab Fest

Face the Nation, AP With journalist Gloria Borgers and Democrats to his left and Republicans to his right, CBS's "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer prepares to begin his show Sunday. (AP)

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  • By Steve Twomey
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, February 8, 1999; Page C1

    The Republican senators were first to emerge from makeup yesterday, because they got to the Fox studios first. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas were now TV versions of themselves, hair corralled, faces de-sheened. With minutes to air time, they were in the greenroom, prepping by reading the morning papers.

    Now the two Democrats were sitting side by side in barber chairs, their dark suits shielded by sheets from any runaway flesh paint being dabbed by two practitioners of the craft. Tom Harkin of Iowa had several note cards tucked in a pocket, bearing handwritten points he would try to make on "Fox News Sunday." Carl Levin of Michigan had made at least one key point already.

    "I want to see if it's possible to make Harkin look better," Levin had said, peering impishly over his glasses at the detailing being done on his colleague's face. Levin paused. He looked. He concluded. "No."

    One-fifth of the United States Senate got made up and took to the electronic well of the Sunday gab shows yesterday to float trial balloons, run matters up flagpoles, see how things play and otherwise rehash the fate of William Jefferson Clinton, the impeached.

    Twenty senators chatting coast to coast is almost exactly the average for a Sunday since the president's trial commenced. Having taken a vow to be silent when assembled for formal proceedings on the floor, senators have survived their own rules by facing the nation, meeting the press and this-weeking with Sam and Cokie so often that CBS ordered smaller chairs so it could squeeze five guests at once around moderator Bob Schieffer.

    "I feel like the greenroom here is an adjunct to the Senate cloakroom," said Lucy Spiegel, CNN's senior executive producer for weekend public affairs programming.

    The weekend shows are not the only release valve for senatorial thoughts. There's "Larry King Live" nearly every night. There's "Today," "Good Morning America" and the other weekday morning shows. There's cable, endlessly. At any hour, on some station, one of the 100 members is probably exercising a First Amendment right, either live or via replay.

    But the Sunday programs are the "Holy Grail shows," said Dan Kunsman, press secretary to Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.).

    Sunday is, usually, the nadir of the news cycle, a pause between the week that was and the week that will be. The A-list chat programs offer their guests a chance to grab a chunk of that evening's network news programs or a place in the next day's newspapers, to get their take heard without being drowned out by other happenings.

    And heard by whom?

    One another.

    "I'm not kidding myself that the American people watch these shows," Harkin said, minutes after "Fox News Sunday" wrapped up its 14-minute segment with the four senators in a fifth-floor studio on North Capitol Street.

    Out in the America beyond, Harkin said, Sunday goes on. Church, brunch, sports. But taking in a chat show is an urge of the relatively few. Although the ratings of "Fox News Sunday," for instance, have risen during the Lewinsky scandal, Harkin suspects the core audience for the Sunday shows lives but a short drive from the downtown studios. It is the journalists who record and opine. It is the consultants who spin. And it is the politicians who seek to know the drift of events.

    "But the general public? No," said Harkin. He and two other senators who appeared on the tube yesterday are among six senators The Washington Post has been following during the impeachment trial.

    Harkin came to Fox yesterday hoping to make several points, having kicked around ideas with his staff the night before. Looking at his note cards as he waited to go on the air, he talked more to himself than anyone else. He even rehearsed a portion of a line that he would come close to using on the show: "The American people have long since figured out . . . ."

    "I want to go over 'sunshine,' I know that," he mumbled, referring to a goal he's had of opening up the Senate's final deliberations to public view, rather than conducting them in secret, as now required by trial rules.

    After the show, he said his motive was to make public deliberations seem so obvious and inevitable that Republicans would be pushed toward joining the movement. He was, in other words, using moderator Tony Snow and the Fox Sunday show to advance his own trial agenda. He was so determined that he answered Snow's initial question -- about whether he opposed censuring Clinton -- in a handful of quick words, and then raised the sail of his sunshine message.

    Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, followed Harkin by about an hour, on "Face the Nation," joining four other senators because she had the same audience in mind that Harkin did.

    "To talk to other senators, the press, the White House," Collins said in an interview last week. "I don't think people outside Washington watch the shows with the same degree of interest. . . . I think the talk shows have played an important role in the trial. They have provided a forum for the floating of ideas between senators. The idea becomes a part of the discussion among colleagues."

    Byron L. Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota who did Larry King's show Saturday night with three other senators, said he has kidded Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) about using network shows to launch his ideas, telling him, "You ought to have a balloon factory, you've put out so many."

    "It's part of the ritual dance that seems to take place around here, where ideas are floated," said Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat from Indiana who joined the Senate only a month ago and is still learning its ways. So far, he said, "I have no desire to be a talking head. Not that that's necessarily bad."

    In truth, numerous senators never appear on the shows, by choice or circumstance. But others have become as familiar as Sunday preachers, Harkin being one, Collins another. She used a Sunday show recently to trot out a proposal, now apparently dead, that the Senate vote on "findings of fact" before voting on the articles of impeachment. The shows are a more efficient vehicle than planting an idea with a newspaper, she said.

    "I think they are different," she said. "Because they are a Washington institution that senators and administration officials and House members tend to watch -- no matter whether they are at home or in D.C. -- they have a broad reach. Whereas a senator might miss reading The Washington Post or the New York Times, because they're back in their home state."

    Why not just tell colleagues?

    "It seems an idea has more legitimacy if colleagues hear about it on television or in the press, rather than at a conference," Collins said.

    The impeachment has done something else to the Sunday shows, besides flooding them with senators: It's brought senators together, literally. Before impeachment, they often appeared on the air from their home states, where they had gone for the weekend. But the trial schedule has kept most in town, and so when they assemble on the air, they are face to face.

    At first, given the emotions surrounding the impeachment, CNN thought it might be wise to put senators of different parties in different waiting rooms before air time. It didn't. And there have been no canings or other physical manifestations of disagreement.

    "I've been doing this for 15 years and it's quite remarkable to go into the greenroom and have four senators -- two from each party -- talking together," said Carin Pratt, executive producer of "Face the Nation." "You get the sense they are working, at least trying to work, together."

    Before air time at CBS yesterday, they were mostly joking. They were joking about the fruit that had been prepared for them. On skewers. What were those? Fruit kabobs? And John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, was joking about himself.

    "I need industrial-strength forehead powder," he said.

    Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, recounted how he was an extra in a "Batman" movie. Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) mentioned he once played a corpse in a Puccini opera. And several senators were trying to figure out why the waiting room at a television studio is called the greenroom, even when it isn't green. No one at CBS seemed to know, although Bennett suggested the term comes from an era when actors doing outdoor theater waited in the shrubbery before going onstage.

    "It's very friendly in the greenroom," Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said. "Then we go in there" -- he motioned toward the set -- "and tear each other's lungs out."

    But they don't, not yesterday at CBS, nor at Fox, nor any place else. They merely talked. One more time, on five networks, they went over the most gone-over news story since the O.J. Simpson case. Afterward, Harkin said he thought all the conversation does advance matters. He learns what the opposition is thinking, he said, because it tends to save its "best shot" for the Sunday shows.

    "There are times in the past when certain people get on Sunday talk shows and it sets things in motion," Harkin said. "I think that has happened more than just a few times in the past."

    But yesterday, he heard nothing startling.

    "I don't think there's anything startling left," he said.

    There's always next Sunday, though.

    Staff writers Lorraine Adams, William Claiborne, Gabriel Escobar and Spencer Hsu contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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