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A Reporter's Notebook

Spin Central in the shadow of the O.J. verdict

By Craig Staats/AllPolitics

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Feb. 4) -- It's one of the great sweaty rituals of Washington.


About the time Bill Clinton hit page 12 of his 13-page speech, reporters sitting in the press gallery above and behind the president began to quietly edge toward the doors and head downstairs to Statuary Hall.

For an hour afterward or so, this imposing, and at other times stately, room is Spin Central. Tonight it contains a hot (because of the TV lights), shoving, claustrophobic mass of people -- members of Congress reacting to what the president said, reporters who cover Washington for newspapers across the country looking for someone from their home state, and tape recorders jammed into pols' faces.

It's not exactly conducive to calm reflection, but some of the participants managed.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), co-author of a campaign finance measure that Clinton supports, liked the president's call to pass the legislation by July 4th.

"I was shocked that my colleagues didn't spring to their feet, like I did," McCain said with a grin. "I had to turn around and ask them to stand up."

McCain said passing campaign finance reform will take a public groundswell. "The anger is out there now. The shock is out there," McCain said. "Now we need to mobilize American public opinion. But clearly it's not going to come from within the Congress. This system is incumbency insurance. Incumbents aren't going to want to change a system that insures their lifetime service in Congress."


McCain recalled how Watergate's scandals led to reforms in 1974. "Major scandals are upon us," he added. "I believe that Senator [Fred] Thompson's committee will expose Republican abuses as well as Democrat abuses."

McCain was asked if Clinton has credibility to even call for campaign finance reform, given what's come out so far about Democratic fund-raising in 1996.

"I think all of us look back at some of the ways that we've raised money with something less than pride," he said. "I don't think it's appropriate for me to question his motives. My goal is to get legislation passed."

Other Republicans didn't hesitate to question the president's motives, though. Some members grumbled that just a year after Clinton declared the era of big government was over, his speech contained a long list of initiatives that would surely cost money.

"The era of big spending is still with us," said Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) "He promised everything to everybody."

Livingston compared Clinton's call for a computer in every home to the late populist Huey Long's promise of "a chicken in every pot."

And, unlike McCain, Livingston wasn't impressed with Clinton's call for campaign finance reform.

"The fact is that all of the campaign reform in the world is of no avail if you've got existing violations of existing law, and there is very clear evidence that foreign operatives contributed to the Democrat[ic] National Committee (DNC)," Livingston said. "That is illegal."

Livingston said he's concerned that the call for campaign finance reform "is an attempt to distract the American people from the fact that they've got real problems in the DNC."

Sen. Connie Mack III (R-Fla.) wasn't bothered by the sheer breadth of Clinton's speech. "There's enough in there to find common ground to work on," Mack said.

Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Calif.) was also spinning, against the whole weird ritual. "I think we over-analyze," Bono suggested. The reality is that much of what the president proposes is quickly cast aside, he said.

With all the bipartisan themes that Clinton stressed, he got a good share of his applause from Republican members. But Clinton angered some of them with one sentence while he was discussing his opposition to the balanced budget amendment.

"I believe it is unnecessary and unwise to adopt a balanced budget amendment that could cripple our country in time of crisis later on, and force unwanted results such as judges halting Social Security checks or increasing taxes," said Clinton. The reaction: a chorus of GOP hisses. Afterward, Sen. Mack called the statement "hyperbolic."

One of the early arrivals was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who said he was looking forward to hearing Clinton's focus on education. Jackson said he welcomed the president's expected calls for high standards and high expectations, but wanted to hear what improving inner-city schools would cost.

"We've got first-class jails and second-class schools," Jackson said. He noted that modern jails are wired for the Internet, but inner-city schools are not. And connecting inner-city schools will be difficult because of asbestos problems, he said.

The nation's strategy seems to be "lock youth up, rather than lift them up," he said. Jackson reiterated that he wanted to see the price tag of what Clinton is proposing. "The dream is a wholesome dream, but the dream will cost," he said.

Since Clinton's plan for comprehensive health care reform fell by the wayside, the president has had to be content with fixing problems one at time. In his speech, he called for guaranteeing that women who undergo a mastectomy can remain in the hospital at least 48 hours. A small change? Not to Judy Willis, a Falls Church, Va., woman, who was in the hospital only 18 hours for her double mastectomy.

Willis, who was in Statuary Hall as a guest of Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), who is pushing the legislation, told reporters, "Two days would have made a world of difference."

In a crowded press gallery, reporters waiting for Clinton's speech to begin found themselves instead waiting for the O.J. Simpson verdict from Santa Monica. "We're blown out," said one reporter. There was almost a giddy sense of futility, as reporters realized that no matter what Clinton said, his words -- and their stories -- had a good chance of being swept away by the verdict.

Security was customarily tight on an occasion when most of the nation's leadership is gathered in one spot. Police with German shepherds checked ID's. One hapless House staffer told an officer her ID card was in her car. "That's a bad place for it on State of the Union night," the cop told her.

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