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Billy Tauzin, on the Fence And Getting It From Both Sides

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 1998; Page C01

"Oh, Gawwd. It's terrible."

We're talking about Robin Rodriguez's Monday, at 12:30 p.m., after she had answered about her 100th phone call the day after her boss appeared on "Meet the Press." Her boss being one Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin of Louisiana, wild-turkey hunter and self-described Republican impeachment ponderer. Meaning he has not declared his intentions. And the House takes up President Clinton's case later this week. Meaning he's a pinata for the public persuaders.

Congressman Tauzin's office. Okay, we'll put you down.

Congressman Tauzin's office. Okay, thanks for calling.

Congressman Tauzin's office. He's undecided, ma'am.

Congressman Tauzin's office. It's Toe-zan.

Rodriguez is busy. Rodriguez wasn't even born during Watergate. Rodriguez had 40 voice mail messages to sift through when she arrived for work at 9 a.m. Rodriguez is being driven impeachment-phone batty.

"I think I'm losing my mind," she says. "When I go home, I answer the phone, 'Congressman Tauzin's office.' "

Tauzin himself was at his Shirlington home yesterday deliberating or explaining his deliberations to the media hordes who called the office for updates on his thinking. His press secretary, Ken Johnson, reads from a stack of messages. "NBC, CNN 'Crossfire,' CNN 'Moneyline,' 'CBS Evening News,' the Lehrer 'NewsHour,' CNBC, MSNBC, the BBC in London, C-SPAN and every major newspaper. It's like, oh [expletive], man."

Indeed.

Now, let's talk about the public. The pundits and the political pros are all foaming about how the American people are not engaged, about how they are cool to the madness engulfing the republic.

Don't tell that to Rodriguez. "I guess other offices have it worst," she says. "I want to believe that." But 250 e-mails were waiting for Tauzin's brigade yesterday morning when they walked through the door of Room 2183 in the Rayburn House Office Building.

"Any time you're on a national show like 'Meet the Press,' " explains Johnson, "the fax machine is smoking and the phones are lit up like a Christmas tree."

It's the way Washington works. The bigger the vote, the closer the vote, the greater the public's outpouring. Sometimes the outpouring is generated by professional outpouring operations. But that doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if your district is in the wetlands of southern Louisiana. It doesn't matter if you used to be a Democrat and 76 percent of the registered voters in your district are Democrats. It doesn't matter if Bill Clinton carried your district every time he ran. It doesn't matter if you sound like you've got the meat ax drawn -- "This president has lied to me personally, and I have a prejudice there" -- as long as you remain publicly unresolved.

So when Billy Tauzin showed up on network TV Sunday as a member of the Wavering Class, it was predictable that he would get communiques from such distant places as Boynton Beach, Fla., and Fort Laramie, Wyo.

Don't say the American people are not engaged.

Wilton Hebert of Pierre Part, La., suggested Proverbs 1, 2, 3 and 6 could guide Tauzin to a decision, while Charles Nick of Lufkin, Tex., cited Alexander Hamilton's prose in Federalist Paper 65 "to try to help you decide whether or not it would be reasonable to vote for impeachment."

"I am reminded of a small book in grade school we were required to read," says Douglas Ball's e-mail from Baton Rouge. "Maybe this book should be a requirement in Congress. The book's name is 'Animal Farm.' " Ball's message: Vote to impeach.

"Enough! Enough! Enough! I voted for you and for Bill Clinton, not to be my moral leader but to lead my country in matters of government," e-mailed Dorothy Thompson of Jeanerette, La.

"Billy, please don't hesitate, impeach. Get us a measure of respect back. Give our children something to hold on to. I trust you." This plea came from Thelma Robichaux of Houma, La.

Samples from this latest avalanche of computer mail were shared with the boss, who wants to know what people are feeling -- even when what they are feeling is expressed with a generous dose of cayenne.

"Do not impeach our president. If you do and the stock market drops, may you end up in bankruptcy and rot in hell" (Anonymous).

"What we try to avoid is getting into a debate with people about their opinions," explains Johnson. "But sometimes people get verbally abusive and then we have to say, 'Thank you for calling, we appreciate your opinion,' and hang up."

Johnson figures that since the Starr report dropped in September, Tauzin has received nearly 10,000 phone calls, letters, faxes and e-mails. Sentiment is running 70-30 against Clinton, he says. Not exactly a mirror of the nation.

Sometimes, though, the local folks can make you understand their mood in ways you hadn't considered. Consider this closing from Quentin L. Hays Jr. of Houma after making the case for impeachment:

"Take care, cha, and come back home more often lest the mud between your toes dries out."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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