August 08, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- "The mood of this capital . . .'' was the way James Reston of the New York Times used to begin columns about the drift of the ship of state. Well, the mood of this capital is poisonous. The air is heavy with hazy humidity, fear, loathing, lying, sanctimony and hypocrisy.

It's a slimy, desperate place these days, worse than I have ever seen it. At least during the hot summer of Watergate 20 years ago, politicians and press alike believed they were dealing with high crimes. They saw themselves doing the most important work they would ever do, trying to guide the democracy through a true crisis in the balance between men and the laws they made.

Now the day's deliberations usually involve misdemeanors or less, and begin with the liberal gentlewoman from California, Rep. Maxine Waters, yelling ''Shut up!'' at the conservative gentleman from New York, Rep. Peter King.

Wesley Pruden, the editor of the capital's distantly second newspaper, the Washington Times, thinks he sees crimes, beginning his column with this:

''Q: What was O.J.'s biggest mistake?

''A: He could have taken Nicole to Arkansas, where she would have killed herself.''

The gentleman of the press then goes on to talk of ''the expanding number of suicides of hapless folks with the remotest connections to the president -- from Vince Foster to . . . several down-home critics.'' His political judgment at the end of the column: ''If they're as innocent as the stonewalling Democrats say they are, the Clintons could have come clean a long time ago. But they didn't. Now, alas, the Clinton presidency may wind up just another Arkansas suicide.''

I was reading that in front of the Capitol of the United States when a big black bus pulled up to the curb. ''Impeach Clinton Tour '94'' was painted on the side, along with this list of presidential transgressions:

''Womanizing . . . Troopergate . . . Deception . . . Abortion . . . Adultery . . . Bribery . . . Sodomy . . . Fraud . . . Abuse of U.S. Constitution . . . Obstruction of Justice . . . Document-Shredding . . . Drug Abuse . . . Tax Evasion . . . Gennifer Flowers . . . Paula Jones.''

''We want real hearings!'' chanted a voice from inside the black bus, perhaps believing that Sen. Alfonse D'Amato is a Clinton plant in the opposition party. The cops shooed the bus away, but I learned later that the voice was that of Randall Terry, an anti-abortion activist.

The mood of the town is not helped by the fact that Congress is obviously going to stay in session past the scheduled recess date Friday -- to continue the political maneuvering around health care and Whitewater, seen to be of equal importance in the regions of the powerful here.

Meanwhile, in another country of Washington, where poor people live, the city's former mayor, Marion Barry, already elected to the City Council after going to jail five years ago for drug use, seems to be on the verge of winning back his old job this November -- and other powers that be are afraid his comeback might be prelude to a local politics of black nationalism.

There is not much mystery about why the city is snarling these days. The stakes are high for politicians of both parties. It seems a long time ago now, but Bill Clinton was riding high at end of 1993 and Republicans had to consider the real possibility that he would be a two-term president with a two-term Democratic successor, Vice President Gore, already in place.

There was and is a now-or-never urgency among Republicans about bringing Mr. Clinton down. And, you may have noticed, the president and his people have a real bent toward living on the edge, a need for crisis.

It's mean and nasty here. Although I have been a resident for eight years of my life (the last time in 1990), I feel like a stranger now. Most Americans would, which is a big part of the country's problems these days.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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