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In a Bedrock GOP State, Patience With Trial Is Cracking

Clinton on Trial

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  • Congressional Profile: Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.)

  • By William Claiborne
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, February 3, 1999; Page A8

    CHEYENNE, Wyo., Feb. 2 Back home for his first visit since the trial of President Clinton began, Sen. Craig Thomas (R) found today that even in this bedrock conservative state where Clinton was thrashed in the 1996 election people are running out of patience with impeachment proceedings.

    "It's dragged out far too long," Bruce Lundell, 65, a retired state forester, said at the Owl Inn here, where the senator stopped by for a cup of coffee. "We've known where Bill Clinton has been characterwise since he was governor of Arkansas, so if they don't have the votes to get him out of there, let's finish it and get on with other business."

    Hank Kaphengst, 65, a semi-retired property manager, agreed. "Why don't they come right out and say who's lying, and if it's proved he's a perjurer and obstructor of justice, then remove him. If it can't be proved, end it."

    Thomas, an outspoken critic of Clinton since he was first elected in 1994, wasn't expecting much of a groundswell for acquittal here. But what he has found in four days of talking with his constituents in the state's capital and in his hometown of Casper is a growing unease over the length of the process unfolding in faraway Washington.

    "We're used to a legislative session that gets all of its work done in just 40 days a year, so a lot of people find it hard to understand why this trial is taking so long," said Scott Zimmerman, a wheat farmer from Pine Bluffs, 45 miles northeast of here, as he waited to meet with Thomas and two dozen agriculture lobbyists at the Hitching Post Inn. "It will be real frustrating if they spend all this time on it and nothing comes of this."

    Thomas, one of six senators The Washington Post has been following throughout the trial to gauge their shifting perspective, has said from the start that all he wants is a complete and fair examination of the evidence against Clinton, followed by an up-or-down vote on conviction and removal from office.

    However, the popular former three-term House member before that he was a state legislator appears more sensitive than ever to the impatience he has been hearing back home. And a political axiom in Wyoming, whose population is only 480,000, is that if you don't stay in touch with your constituents, you won't last long in office.

    Indeed, Thomas has been showing a little impatience of his own.

    "I think people are, frankly, getting a little tired of it," he told a group of students during a question-and-answer session today at Triumph High School, a charter school. When a ripple of applause and a few "yeah, yeahs" went through the room, he added, "Nobody is more tired of it than I am, but the basis of it is still very important the law applies to everyone and the Constitution is the basis of the law."

    When asked by a student to explain the next steps of the trial, Thomas briefly described the process of deposing the three witnesses subpoenaed by the House "managers" and quickly added, "I doubt, frankly, if there will be live witnesses in the Senate, so we'll just close up, hopefully next week."

    He described the trial as "not a lot of fun," but emphasized that, as a juror, it would be "unseemly" to indicate which way he is leaning on the articles of impeachment.

    In a speech to both houses of the Republican-controlled legislature, where he was warmly received as a returning dignitary, Thomas expressed bewilderment that a thriving national economy and what he describes as a troubling absence of moral outrage over the Monica Lewinsky scandal has kept Clinton's public approval ratings high.

    "Maybe the answer lies in the notion that political character is so infected with cynicism that as long as we are satisfied economically, we no longer expect leaders to have character," he said.

    "Some have argued recently that the character of our political and social leaders doesn't matter, or shouldn't matter," Thomas added. "That as long as the trains run on time, the measure of a person is secondary or irrelevant. I don't agree with that."

    Eli Bebout, speaker of the Wyoming House of Representatives, pointed out that while the rest of the nation may be booming economically, Wyoming is not. The prices of oil, coal and soda ash have fallen sharply here, along with livestock and grain prices, and Wyoming is one of the few states without a significant budget surplus.

    "You see people saying, 'Let's get this trial over with, because there's a lot to do in Washington for our state and the nation,'" Bebout said. "But there aren't a lot of people willing to forgive Bill Clinton for anything just because the economy is so good. For a lot of folks here, it just isn't that good."

    How will the impeachment trial play out for Republicans in the 2000 election? Wallace Ulrich, state GOP chairman, said Wyoming is "full of very conservative folks who are also live-and-let-live conservatives who don't want the government involved in a lot of personal things."

    But, Ulrich said, Wyoming voters also have followed the trial closely enough to see "a lot of Democratic partisanship so unsavory that it illuminates the worst aspects of Bill Clinton. . . . They will be called to task for their blatant poll watching and their blithe disregard of constitutional law."

    For his part, Thomas seemed content to return to Washington, perform his "constitutional duty" in a vote on the articles of impeachment sooner rather than later, he hopes and get on with the legislative business of a senator.

    "If his [Clinton's] behavior doesn't matter in the polls, then so be it. I can't do anything about that," he said.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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