WASHINGTON -- If one sound symbolized Washington in the first days of the Clinton administration, it may have been a busy signal.
By the hundreds of thousands, Americans are flooding switchboards at the White House and Congress. A torrent of calls last week helped topple Zoe Baird, President Clinton's choice for attorney general. Now there's a switchboard referendum on Mr. Clinton's plan to allow gays and lesbians in the military.
While there's nothing new about people trying to make their voices heard, the electorate today is markedly more alienated from its leaders and determined to play a direct role in the way the country is governed.
On an average day, the Capitol switchboard, which handles calls for 535 senators and representatives and five congressional delegates, receives 84,000 calls. Tuesday's tally: 263,947 calls -- about 183 a minute for all 24 hours of the day. "Unbelievable," said a frazzled Capitol Hill operator with a sigh.
Since Friday, the Pentagon logged 3,321 calls -- more calls than during the Persian Gulf War, a spokesman says. The White House isn't releasing numbers of calls, but presidential spokesman George Stephanopoulos says, "There have been a fair amount." Yesterday, the line was continually busy.
The issues stirring the public are highly charged and easy to grasp. They strike close to home in a volatile era of working couples and changing sexual mores -- a rich lawyer hiring an illegal alien to care for her son, homosexuals living openly in Army barracks.
The impulse to pick up the phone is an extension of a political campaign in which the candidates, particularly Mr. Clinton, insisted on debates and other forums where ordinary people could quiz them directly.
Rep. Don Edwards, D-Calif., warns that the message may be distorted -- and also may be the result of an orchestrated campaign. "Angry people will call. Happy people won't."
Are switchboard referenda, which are even less reliable than polls, good for democracy? "You have to pay attention. That doesn't mean it determines the outcome," says Ann Lewis, a Democratic activist and sister of Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., an outspoken proponent of ending the ban.
"If you tune this out and ignore it," Ms. Lewis says, "you're in danger of allowing the distance [between leaders and the public] to get too great. If you let the phone calls determine your actions, then you have given up your leadership."
"These guys can always fall back on representative democracy," says Steve Bilafer, executive editor of the Hotline, a daily computer news service that covers politics nationwide.
"When there's a tough call, they can let the people make it for them."