All quiet on the insider front
Suddenly the Senators to see were no longer a reporter's best friends
By Margaret Carlson
January 25, 1999
If you were to take a poll in the press for "best source," the award would go to John McCain. He calls back from plane, train or automobile, between speeches, on vacation. Candid before it was cool, he will tell you over lunch all the things he's done wrong before the first course and try to pick up the check. On deadline, a reporter has no better friend.
So of all the people in all the world to take a vow of silence for the duration of the Senate trial, why did it have to be McCain? True, this is serious business, which needs to pass the test of history, not just make the next day's Hotline, but why couldn't, say, Senators Mitch McConnell and Barbara Boxer be the ones to stuff a sock in their mouth? McCain's absence has created such a big hole on shows like Imus in the Morning that producers have reached down to third-tier chatterers like me. The Sunday shows used to be exclusively for people of McCain's ilk. Last Sunday, Tim Russert played host to four senatorial Meet the Press virgins: Larry Craig, Patty Murray, Gordon Smith and Carl Levin. In other words, the farm team.
Not that silence isn't excellent statesmanship. The press scrum by the Ohio clock just outside the Senate chamber is not a sight you want the children to see on their class trip. The lights go on, and Senators come out to put their spin on the day as if emerging from a war room. Senator John Chafee usually manages to drone on long enough to hip-check a horde of Democrats lurking behind him hoping to pounce before CNN ceases its live coverage for the day.
I got McCain to meet with me on the basis that I wanted to talk to him about why he wouldn't talk to me. The maverick McCain, if he could be lulled back into Dial-a-Quote mode, could explain the odd coalition of impeachment hawks, who want to keep the trial going in hopes they can finally land their prey, and process groupies, who want to keep the trial going largely to pass constitutional muster. He could explain that peculiar on-again, off-again relationship between Trent Lott and Orrin Hatch. He could explain Trent Lott.
When I met him, McCain had been softened up by lunch with constituents in the Senate dining room. But he steered every question back to Bosnia. The closest we got was the burden of sitting in judgment. Here's a man running for President; every minute of airtime is worth a hundred town-hall meetings. But what was he saying? "Credibility is more important than exposure." He mentioned he'd had "about a thousand requests," including Sam and Cokie waving madly in Statuary Hall after the State of the Union, asking him to come on their show. They didn't stop until he said he would discuss only Kosovo. He's making his new campaign manager, Rick Davis, oddly happy. "Discipline is the hallmark of a great presidential candidate," says Davis. As if he expected McCain to fall off the wagon!
There are other impeachment monks. Arlen Specter, who for a time seemed willing to come to your kitchen for a chat, hasn't seen the inside of a studio since Larry King Live on Jan. 7. He thinks more people would say no to going on if there weren't such a connection between "TV exposure and campaign contributions." At one time, there was sentiment among many Republicans that once they became jurors, they shouldn't discuss the case on TV, a kind of mutual nonaggression pact. But Specter told me, "You couldn't get such a pact with Hitler, and you can't get it from U.S. Senators."
Television makes or breaks political careers, and taking yourself out of the game is hardest on those who just got into it. The low-key, hardworking Senator Mike DeWine could become the trial's historic figure just because he cut his 15 minutes of fame to 10. He was a network piker until Christmastime, when he found himself suddenly in demand as one of the first Senators to come out against the incipient censure movement. He broke into the major leagues--Crossfire, Late Edition, Meet the Press. Last Thursday the show of shows, Nightline, called for the first time. But he told them he'd stopped talking about the trial since becoming a juror. So instead of chatting backstage with Ted Koppel, DeWine spent the evening drinking Mountain Dew in Senator Orrin Hatch's office, coordinating G.O.P. questions for the next day's session.
McCain left to enter the chamber as the chaplain was praying that the body will be able to "decide decisively." The grim mood seemed to lift the evening before when the warm and decent former Senator Dale Bumpers spoke. His old chestnuts weren't as funny as the laughter that rolled through the chamber would indicate. It's just that people were ready to be human again. The air into which Senator Robert Byrd lofted his proposal was temporarily softer.
However it ends, Specter says he has no regrets about his TV downtime. "Future historians will go to CNN tapes, and they will show that some of us did the right thing." CNN? Tapes? History? Perhaps we pundits should have taken a vow of silence.
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