Impeachment notebook?

The view from the press gallery. Jesse Helms snores, Al Franken gets tossed and the House managers look overmatched by their White House adversaries.

By Joshua Micah Marshall
January 27, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)
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Peering into the Senate chamber from the press gallery, the impeachment trial has a much different look and feel than it does on television. On your screen you see only the individual speaker, but in person the chamber looks a little like a small basketball court, with a few hundred spectators assembled to watch the game. For the first few hours of questioning on Friday, it actually looked and felt something like the 19th century newspaper reporters described the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson -- with some suspense, genuine reactions from the spectators and a feeling that this was a real moment of civic drama

In person, the senators themselves look pretty much as you'd expect. Barbara Boxer occasionally sits with her legs curled under her -- a refreshingly casual contrast to the stuffy stateliness of her Senate colleagues. The only one I saw repeatedly falling asleep was Jesse Helms. At one point it crossed my mind that he might be dead. He was in that classic grandpa sleep mode: head cocked back at 45 degrees, eyes shut, mouth wide open, waiting for the next loud noise to bump him back into consciousness.


My strongest impression watching from the gallery was just how outclassed the House managers seemed compared with their White House counterparts. Not necessarily on the merits of their case (though it often seemed that way, too), but in terms of their ability to think on their feet. People in the press gallery were calling them rubes. And really it shouldn't have been surprising. On the president's side were some of the highest-priced lawyers in the capital. The House managers were an assortment of small-town district attorneys and county judges.

The really impressive House managers were Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a former U.S. attorney, and James Rogan of California, a former judge. But when questions began on Friday, you could hear a new pitch in their voices. A bit rushed, occasionally sarcastic, more than anything they just sounded angry. The buzz around the capital was that the tide was turning strongly in the president's favor, and at least a handful of Republican senators were threatening to bolt. They could feel the whole thing slipping out of their hands and they were struggling to make their case, sometimes raising their voices or tossing out asides about the need for witnesses, all to get the senators' attention.

And listening to the House managers hammer away at the president, I suddenly realized that they may be the only ones who hadn't understood that they weren't going to win this one. Ever since the Starr Report dropped the Lewinsky affair in their laps last September, the House Republicans had been told again and again that the next hurdle on the road to impeachment would be insurmountable. But each time, they managed to pull it off. First it was the initial investigation; then they came back after the disappointment of November's election; then they got the impeachment articles out of the committee; then they persuaded the full House to vote to impeach; and finally, they overcame initial Senate proposals to cut the trial short before it began. Even though all the conventional wisdom said the president couldn't be convicted, they really seemed to believe that they could work the same old impeachment magic they had pulled off in the House. The only problem was that, in the Senate, for once, they had to convince Democrats, and lots of them, to abandon the president -- and if anything the Senate Democrats were hardening in their opposition.


Maybe the funniest impeachment moment came from comedian Al Franken, who was attending the trial with one of the prized yellow impeachment tickets as a guest of some senator -- he wouldn't say which one. After a few minutes of conversation, Franken and I and a few others were shooed out of the hallway by a Capitol police officer, and we took the elevator back up to the Senate gallery. Before I knew it, Franken and I were sitting together in one of the rooms where senators give press conferences.

Sen. Phil Gramm had just bounded into the room to do a little damage control about Sen. Robert Byrd's proposed motion to dismiss. Apparently one of the first rules of the Senate is that no one can ever criticize Bob Byrd about anything, and Gramm did his best to comply. He told us he'd just spoken to Trent Lott, and he made a strained argument about how it would be wrong to cut the trial short, even if it was clear the House didn't have much of a case. Franken raised his hand and asked Gramm whether he would have voted for the articles of impeachment if he were in the House, knowing what he now knew. Gramm seemed to have no clue who Franken was and proceeded to ignore the question and pipe on about justice being a process, not a verdict.

Franken and I chuckled about Gramm's refusal to answer the question, and suddenly two spindly arms reached across me and grabbed Franken and started to pull him out of his chair. It was a woman from the Senate press office, barking, "You have to leave. You're not press." Franken pointed to me and said, "But I'm with someone from the press" as he was being rushed out of the room. But he stayed in character through the whole thing, laughing as he got tossed out. That really drove the woman crazy. She mustered up her schoolmarm best and scolded him: "It's not funny!"


I rushed out of the press room after Franken got the boot. But by the time I got out into the hall, he'd already slipped back into the Senate gallery -- where celebrities, but not the press, are allowed to roam free.

Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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