Spend a couple of days in Bill Clinton’s Washington, and you can start to understand why they hate him so. Tuesday night, with his usual what-me-worry cool, he delivers an address that reduces the town to jelly. Meanwhile, Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon, the Senate, supposedly making history and engaged in proceedings of the direst gravity, is very literally putting itself and its audience to sleep. Lately, it’s as if Clinton couldn’t lose a round to these people if he tried – and, of course, he has tried.
Surreal was the word of the week in Washington, but in fact one sensed little surreality in the House chamber last Tuesday night. Last year, sure; that State of the Union address hit the week after the scandal broke, and the moment provided the highest political drama in this country since Watergate. But this year, no one expected Clinton to mention impeachment, and he didn’t; noone expected Republicans to misbehave, and – the handful of no-shows notwithstanding – they didn’t; everyone expected Clinton to deliver a stocking-stuffing olio of a speech that drew from both left and right, and he did.
It was not, by a long shot, speech-making for the ages. Clinton has never exactly waxed Churchillian. There was nary a surprising adjective or verb, no historical reference beyond the most cursory and mundane; a State of the Union address, Clinton-style, is strictly about policy, about talking “past the representatives and to their constituents,” as a Statuary Hall denizen put it to me, and on this score – this for farmers, that for immigrants, the other thing for uniformed grunts – the speech was indeed a huge success.
The only visible tension in the room gathered in Tom DeLay’s shoulders. The House majority whip refused to applaud one sentence of the president’s speech, even the sentences having to do with raising military pay and awakening Cuba from the long sleep of Fidelismo. He just glared, balefully, malevolently, at Clinton the whole time, body taut as a prizefighter’s at a weigh-in, working his chewing gum furiously between his gnashing bicuspids. But DeLay was the exception. Republicans along the center aisle leaned forward to shake the president’s hand as he entered and exited the chamber, just as they always do; even Strom Thurmond seemed intent on pressing the First Flesh at speech’s end, though Clinton, intently working the Democratic side, slid past him.
Meanwhile, in the Senate chamber during the afternoon hours, they can’t even fill the galleries. Wednesday, for example, there were, the constant and glamorous presence of Whoopi Goldberg aside, 20 to 50 empty seats at any given moment. Senators rubbed their eyes; reporters, I confess myself included, dozed briefly. The nation’s periodical press is allotted thirteen seats. At one o’clock Wednesday, as Clinton lawyer Gregory Craig commenced his presentation, two of those thirteen were empty, meaning that all the weekly and monthly magazines in America combined could muster only eleven witnesses to history in the making.
It’s got to be maddening for conservatives, for the media, even for others who are not in those two camps but who nevertheless want the process to work. Did I say process? Let me digress. Washington is devoted above all else to process. Consider, if you will, the Capitol Hill “community,” to use that poor, overworked word. A town of about 30,000 people, give or take. A town where, to walk around freely without arousing suspicion (obvious tourists not included), you must dangle a laminated I.D. card from your where you’d do well to keep your keys and coins in a handy pocket so you can fish them out quickly at the many metal detectors. A town where there’s a cop every 80 feet or so, nodding at you solicitously but ready to pounce like a puma if you strike out down the wrong passageway. A town where the kings of the Hill still constitute a white, male gerontocracy, and where virtually every subordinate, from the cafeteria help to the people who drive those little subways that scurry between the Senate office buildings and the Capitol, is black (and where they “Yes, sir” you to the point of embarrassment). A town where public facilities, elevators and the like, are still, as it were, segregated (SENATORS ONLY, MEMBERS ONLY).
A town such as this sets great store by its values and rules. Whatever else these nutty Republicans think they’re accomplishing, they chiefly think on some level they’re upholding both. This is no doubt what Henry Hyde thought he was doing, and indeed there is a kind of logic under his madness – the president clearly lied, probably broke some law or other, stonewalled and mocked Hyde’s beloved House, and must pay the price. An utterly rational Capitol Hill political perspective.
The problem is that neither Clinton nor the much-celebrated two thirds of the American people set much store by those values and rules. Clinton didn’t in 1992, when he end-ran around the Washington press and went straight to Larry King and MTV. He didn’t, stupidly, in his first term, when he tried to change the policy on gays in the military without even calling Sam Nunn, who at the time chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee. And he certainly hasn’t for the past year.
And the people? The political response of Hyde and DeLay, and Sam and Cokie for that matter, was the only response they knew. But they failed to understand that people never responded to this scandal using political instincts. They responded emotionally, or psychologically, or however else they responded, but not politically. That’s why the political expectation – that the public would desert this liar and philanderer – was wrong. Opinion hasn’t changed, and, barring some inconceivable bombshell on the order of a revelation that Monica was simultaneously doing Tariq Aziz, it won’t.
The vote that’s due this week to drop the case will probably fail, and in all likelihood we will see a few witnesses. Still, it bears watching whether two or three other conservative panjandrums follow Pat Robertson, whose “Surrender, GOP” announcement came as this was written, down the path of forgiveness. Robertson recognizes the obvious, that the post-speech Clinton is out in front, as they say, on everything from Social Security to education to military preparedness, and that the GOP has only impeachment and, thanks to Jennifer Dunn, who delivered one of the vapid Republican responses to the Clinton speech, gardening.
Democrats shouldn’t crow, either – impeachment has galvanized them, but they’ll go back to their usual bickering once it ends, and the screw will turn many times between now and November 2000. But for now, the GOP is making a mess of itself, and if you want to go watch, there are still plenty of seats available.