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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Driven to distraction

After a few weeks with the Clinton case, even reasonable Senators get wiggy

By Margaret Carlson

February 1, 1999
Web posted at: 12:40 p.m. EDT (1240 GMT)

TIME magazine

Last Thursday a Republican Senator went before the cameras to denounce Democratic leader Tom Daschle's proposal for handling impeachment witnesses. Gleeful, the Senator crowed, "It is perhaps accurate for Senator Gramm and myself to describe the Daschle proposal as being Sex, Lies and No Videotape. Now we want the videotape. And this resolution will get it."

Who was this fire breather? It was Slade Gorton, the very same Washington Senator who just three weeks ago was making bipartisan music with Democrat Joe Lieberman. But now Gorton was bouncing off the walls of the radio-TV gallery like Mister Rogers on a caffeine binge. What had happened? Perhaps the normally temperate Gorton had simply been worn down by the marathon negotiations. Perhaps he wanted to be the first to trot out that overworked movie title. Or, perhaps, like so many others, he had been driven temporarily insane by full-frontal exposure to the case against Clinton.

Why are so many Republican members of the Senate, which revels in its reputation for cooling tea in the saucer, putting the kettle back on the stove? Once determined to restore faith in the process--or at least not be mentioned in the same breath as Bob Barr--they're now all concerned about the "feelings" of the House managers. The Senators have been letting the managers win one battle at a time, humoring them like children who promise to turn out the light and go to sleep if they can have just one more glass of water.

Another reason, of course, is to placate conservative supporters by giving them a longer show of Oval Office sins, especially since these Senators cannot deliver the final act that Clinton haters crave. And the Senators are counting on national amnesia to set in among moderate voters, so they'll remember only that the Senate did not remove Clinton, not that it dragged everyone through a couple of unnecessary weeks. These penultimate votes will serve as keepsakes for the core constituency, the kind of folks who can still tell you who gave away the Panama Canal.

Imminent defeat is liberating. Say you knew you were going to lose the Super Bowl, but you had to play the game anyway. Wouldn't you want a glitzy halftime show starring Monica? Some Republican Senators voted for witnesses to make sure the trial passed constitutional muster, on the theory that partisanship in defense of the Constitution is no vice. But many more believe Lewinsky Live is their last best hope of attracting the public's attention and changing its mind.

Then there's the frustration factor. When Clinton goes about his business as if impeachment were happening to someone else he inflames otherwise sensible Republicans. After cnn went live to St. Louis, Mo., for a picture of the World's Most Famous Celibate arm in arm with the World's Most Famous Adulterer--not even giving Clinton's trial the dignity of a split screen--one Senator wailed that he couldn't believe his eyes. "How could the Holy Father be seen with such a man?" It's been a heavy enough cross to bear that the American people have gone morally lax, but the Pontiff too? Next thing, we'll have to protect the children from him.

Every politician knows what would happen if he were in Clinton's shoes. "Imagine if I were caught in my office with an intern," a moderate Senator told a group of mayors. "I'd be run out of town. Gone." Like all caucuses, the G.O.P.'s is driven by its most passionate members. While some are troubled by Ken Starr's veering off into a consensual affair, they hardly balance those who are enraged by Clinton. But perhaps the greatest fear in the G.O.P. is the O.J. factor--that if acquitted, Clinton will throw a party and announce a search for the person who got us into this mess.

On Friday, Trent Lott sighed, "Free at last," as he embraced a week-long break from being "tethered to the floor." A normal day in a Senator's life consists of being whisked, in a warm car in winter and a cool one in summer, from one self-aggrandizing event to the next. There are photo ops with fawning constituents, visits from bootlicking lobbyists, calls to wealthy contributors, all lubricated by a solicitous staff. Senators are used to setting their own schedules, which almost never include sitting still listening to other people prattle on. They'll do the prattling, thank you.

After the majority bulldozed the minority on Thursday, the chamber broke into an unexpected round of arm nuzzling and shoulder butting across the partisan divide, even as it seemed to widen. Could they have been faking how far apart they really were to please their respective constituencies? Afterward, Lott didn't gloat. Daschle didn't go nuclear. Tom Harkin didn't pout. The Senators stampeded to the airport, heading home or to the Super Bowl in Miami. There, at least, the outcome was still up in the air.


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: February 8, 1998

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