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Down the Rabbit Hole and Into The Senate Trial

By Ken Ringle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 1999; Page C01

During the morning business session of the U.S. Senate, 30 minutes before the day's impeachment trial session on the credibility of President William Jefferson Clinton, the subject on the Senate floor was the credibility of said William Jefferson Clinton.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, was holding forth to an almost empty chamber on the will-o'-the-wisp nature of Clintonian linguistics.

"Twelve months ago the president stood in this building and proclaimed that 'the era of big government is over,' " Craig said. "And we cheered that fact." But Tuesday night, with his presidency imperiled by his own lies and indiscretions, Craig said, Clinton delivered a State of the Union address proclaiming "a new Great Society . . . 75 or 80 new federal programs touching all his support groups! More programs than even Lyndon Johnson!" The president, Craig said, never mentioned what that would do to the taxpayer. Instead, he said, Clinton referred in his speech to "my balanced budget."

"Mr. President, how dare you! That was a Republican balanced budget. You opposed us every step of the way and now you want to take credit for it!"

Two hours later, another Craig, White House special counsel Gregory Craig, was defending the president's truthfulness by declaring that even though Clinton had lied to the public and lied to his aides he had never told the grand jury that he hadn't lied.

Those looking to make sense of all this might have been pardoned for wondering whether they'd wandered into the Mad Hatter's Tea Party instead of the first impeachment trial of an elected president.

And indeed, as the trial convened, some of those sitting in judgment over the president could have been creations of Lewis Carroll: Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), peering dimly through heavy-rimmed dark glasses; Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), looking frail and startled in his upright posture; Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), slouched in a frenzy of gum-chewing; Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), creeping aged and fragile into the chamber late, leaning on a cane with four little feet.

Then there was Sen. Robert C. Byrd. The dour little West Virginia Democrat was sporting a large bandage wrapping his left hand. According to his office, Byrd was inbound from his home in McLean in his chauffeured Lincoln Town Car about 9 a.m. yesterday, reading in the back seat, as is his wont, when one of the specially installed reading lights burst into flames. The doughty Byrd quashed the fire with his hand, sustaining burns in the process, but he wasn't late for the office. He never even had the driver pull over.

Among this cast of characters wandered the Senate stenographers, tapping at their neck-hung stenotypers like strolling Gypsy xylophonists at some bizarre impeachment cafe.

Craig, the president's lawyer, only heightened the air of unreality, apologizing for inflicting on the senators "more than your minimum daily requirement of lawyering" and noting that it would be a disservice to both the president and the Senate to frame Clinton's defense with the kind of legalistic hair-splitting that turned the American public off the entire political process.

But hey, a lawyer's gotta do what a lawyer's gotta do. Soon the president's defender was deconstructing with a vengeance the language governing just how and where the president touched Monica Lewinsky and with what. And portraying Clinton as a legal and sexual naif, hopelessly confused and victimized by both prosecutorial semantics and Lewinsky's erotic ideas.

It would have been easy to think the most appropriate spectator was actress/comedian Whoopi Goldberg, raptly attentive in the front row of the Senate guest gallery.

But history looks different to different people, and the people streaming in and out of the public galleries -- teenagers in sweat clothes and running shoes, tourists in ball caps and warm-up jackets, housewives lugging mufflers and winter coats -- saw more than Alice in Wonderland.

One of them was a small black-haired woman named Luz Aveiro 35, from Paraguay, a teacher at the American school in Asuncion. She arrived in town last weekend with five students on a Close-Up Foundation program. The impeachment trial was a key stop.

Why?

"We are a very new democracy in South America" after decades of dictatorships, "and we need for young people to see what democracy is about," she said. "In Paraguay there is almost no one to tell them what they need to know."

While jaded Washingtonians may see in the Clinton impeachment only sex and partisanship, she said, her students see something else. "They know he did wrong, but your country is running anyway. The economy is strong. In South America, if the politics are in turmoil, the economy is in turmoil. People tend to think that's the way it has to be. I want them to see that it's not the way it has to be. That true democracy like here can build something better."

Equally uplifted was Tom Moyer, 59, of Columbus, Ohio, the state's Republican chief justice. He was in town for a meeting of the association of state chief justices. Looking in at the trial wasn't exactly a busman's holiday -- he's never tried an impeachment case -- but it was instructive nonetheless.

"I just keep thinking how different this would be in other countries," he said. However strange it may seem up close, "it's a very orderly process. It was set up by the founding fathers 200 years ago and here it's now working" regardless of the seamy context of sex and lies. "In what other country could you even imagine that?"

© Copyright The Washington Post Company

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