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 There was nary a surprising adjective or verb, no historical reference beyond the most cursory and mundane; a State of the Union address, Clinton-style, is strictly about policy, about talking "past the representatives and to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).