Clinton on Trial

Among the Hyenas

Not that anything is routine when you’re trying to topple a president, but today’s trial business is, well, routine. The fix went in yesterday on the two key votes, and today the senators cast their ballots as expected, straight down the party line. All 55 Republicans plus Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., vote against the motion to dismiss the case. A couple of minutes later, all 55 Republicans plus Feingold vote for the motion to subpoena three witnesses. (The placid roll calls are interrupted only by the cries of Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who petitions to change her vote after she accidentally answers “nay” when she meant “yea.”)

Following the votes, senators retreat to private conferences to negotiate the witness logistics: Will the depositions be videotaped? How will objections be resolved? How long will the depositions last? Can the White House call witnesses? Can the White House demand discovery? Etcetera.

All this makes for a rather quiet day, with much lower RPM spinning than usual. Republicans hit the microphones to congratulate themselves for not “short-circuiting a constitutional process” (today’s Republican catch phrase). They do much celebrating of “the search for the truth” and hallowing of the “sacred constitutional ground” on which they are treading. Democrats make what they can of their defeats, presenting the 44 votes to dismiss as acquittal by proxy. “The conclusion is now foregone” is today’s Democratic catch phrase. “It is now clear that the president will not be removed. For the good of the country, it is time to end this,” declares Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

After Daschle’s banal statement, I find myself in a crowd of reporters–a literal pen-wielding mob–chasing him, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., down a marble staircase. This chase, like virtually all Capitol chases, ends in futility: They escape down a corridor blocked by Capitol police officers.

In the wake of yet another pointless hot pursuit, it occurs to me that now may a good time for a word on the press’s behavior during the trial. That word is: poor. There are two basic strategies for the trial reporter. The first is to lounge on the rather comfortable leather couches in the press gallery, occasionally calling sources and mostly watching CNN. I do not denigrate this method at all. Any nugget of breaking news quickly finds its way to CNN, and you can save yourself a lot of useless walking.

The second is to chase quotes around the Capitol. As soon as the trial breaks for a recess, swarms of reporters race for the third floor Senate studio (to catch TV-seeking senators), the second floor Ohio Clock (senators who don’t want to walk very far), the first floor corridors (senators who have full bladders), and the basement (senators taking the subway back to their offices). Unfortunately, there are way too many reporters for every quotable senator, and Capitol police have decided that reporters must be penned in. The Senate studio is packed tight, and reporters at the Ohio Clock are penned behind velvet ropes. It’s ugly: 100 people in a space meant for 20, hot TV lights, low ventilation, too much eating of Senate bean soup.

Being free of the velvet ropes is not much improvement. Capitol police officers are posted every 25 feet in any corridor where a reporter might linger. Their only job is to keep reporters off their real estate. Their basic principle: Reporters must move or die. If you stop on the marble stairs, they yell, “Up or down, up or down!” If you stop to glance at a painting, they yell, “Keep moving.” If you wander a few feet down a verboten corridor, you will find yourself being shoved politely back from whence you came. (Move or die, except when you can’t move at all. Yesterday I started walking down an open corridor that Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, also happened to be walking down. A cop placed himself in front of me, put out his hand, and admonished, “No chasing.”)

To be fair to the poor Capitol cops, reporters often deserve this herding. Pity the poor senator who descends to the first floor without a ready quote. The journalists lurking in the corridors are merciless. One daring reporter cuts off the senator, blocking passage with his body and a question. If the senator makes the mistake of hesitating, even for a second, the rest of us descend on him, fangs and tape recorders bared. In seconds, the senator disappears into the scrum, and only some very able staff work can extricate him. (Most senators, fortunately, are always happy to be stopped for a quote.)

Finally, the bathroom. Politics stops at the water’s edge. Reporting does too, usually. It is considered bad form to follow a senator into the bathroom, though folks, especially men folks, do chase right up to the swinging doors. I was in a bathroom the other day when Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., stormed in and parked himself at the urinal next to me. He was muttering furiously. “Locusts! A man can’t even take a piss without having to give a sound bite!”