Going through the motions

Friday's historic impeachment debate had all the tension and soul-stirring oratory of a sewage appropriations bill -- until Patrick Kennedy tangled offstage with Bob Barr.

Published December 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Friday had all the ingredients for a momentous and historic debate in the House of Representatives. It was, after all, only the second time in the nation's history that a president was about to be impeached. What we got instead was the same partisan prattle that we've been hearing for weeks.

It might have made decent TV, but live under the white Capitol dome it felt as if the 435 members were dulled down on lithium. There were rarely more than 60 representatives at a time on the House floor. The Republicans, almost exclusively white men in suits, sat quiet and content, knowing they had the votes to nail President Clinton. The Democrats, who come in both genders and many colors, chatted and argued and cheered a few times. It was all so rehearsed, so desultory.

"Like they were debating a sewer bill," said Andrew Ferguson of the New Statesman.

There were plenty of opportunities for soaring oratory. Washington was stewing in a surreal and bizarre brew of its own making. The ever-popular Clinton was down the street at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., meeting with members of the European Union and prosecuting a war in the Middle East. Young Americans were dropping hundreds of smart bombs and missiles on Iraq. The incoming Speaker of the House, Bob Livingston, had just admitted to screwing around on his wife. Hustler magazine was threatening to out a few more congressmen. Livingston showed up on the House floor several times, but not one congressman mentioned his infidelity.

The day began with some tension and decent rhetoric from Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde and his Democratic counterpart, John Conyers. Both sides borrowed from Abe Lincoln. Spectators hoping to catch a glimpse of history lined up around the sun-washed Capitol all day and filled the galleries. But for the most part the congressmen spoke to the camera, as if they were dolls that issue the same lines when their strings are pulled. The Republicans vilified the president and demanded that he be impeached. The Democrats argued that censure was enough punishment.

The one moment of true passion and emotion took place off the House floor in the speaker's lobby. Journalist Maria Shriver walked into the long room hung with oil portraits of past speakers. She chatted with her cousin, Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island. Then Kennedy saw Bob Barr, the pink-faced Clinton-hater from Georgia, and things got nasty.

Barr was surrounded by scribblers taking down his latest jabs at the president. He had just finished his floor statement advocating impeachment in which he had referred to John F. Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage." Patrick Kennedy wasn't amused at the reference. He pushed into the clot of journalists around Barr.

"You addressed the White Citizen's Council and lied about it," Kennedy yelled at Barr. "Anyone who's part of a racist organization has no right invoking my uncle's memory."

"Young man," Barr shot back, "say what you like."

"Don't call me a young man," Kennedy said. "I was duly elected by the constituents in my district."

"I am duly impressed," Barr said, and Kennedy stalked off with his cousin.

Barr, a small, rotund man with blue, hooded eyes, turned paranoid. "I know you people are going to write about this and make me out to be the bad guy," he said. And he walked off. Tip O'Neill, the former speaker who presided over the House when the two parties actually talked to one another, looked down on the sorry exchange from his portrait on the wall.

Rep. Rick Lazio seemed to say it all when he gave his floor statement late in the afternoon. The representative from Suffolk County, N.Y., is a moderate who was thought to be a swing vote -- maybe for impeachment, maybe against. He had just returned from a trip to the Middle East with Clinton.

"I think that what's needed to be said has been said," he said. And then he proceeded say it all again, and it was said again and again until the debate that was not a debate was over, late into the night.

By Harry Jaffe

Harry Jaffe is a leading journalist covering Washington, DC—its politics, its crime, its heroes and villains. Beyond Washington, Jaffe’s work has been published in Yahoo News, Men’s Health,Harper’s, Esquire, and newspapers from the San Francisco Examiner to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s appeared in documentary films, and on television and radio across the country and throughout Europe.

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Bill Clinton Iraq Middle East Patrick Kennedy D-r.i.