WASHINGTON -- Bob Schwenk is in mid-sentence when a co-worker pops in delivering the latest update on the Starr report.
"Going to be 20 illustrations coming in the next couple hours," the colleague tells him. A few minutes later, the phone rings. It's a bookbinder. "Hey John," Schwenk says, "more Starr documents coming this morning, around 10: 30ish. Start organizing."
In the printing world, they're getting ready for D-Day.
Schwenk is in what could best be described as the war room at the Government Printing Office, preparing for what is expected to be the final dump of documents from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on the Monica Lewinsky affair. Two days ago, the printing office manager was readying the troops for the massive reprint of the final pages that had been delivered to Congress, which is expected to be released publicly as soon as tomorrow.
If the latest run of Starr documents is any indication, the agency will print 5,400 copies in 48 hours, transforming boxed-and-sealed secret evidence into public documents ready for bedtime reading. The documents -- roughly 4,000 pages about Lewinsky and President Clinton -- include 20 photo illustrations, reams of hand-written notes, and lengthy testimony from secondary players such as former Lewinsky pal Linda R. Tripp.
"We're the little guys doing their little part, the cog in the wheel," says Schwenk, a 38-year printing office veteran who manages typesetters and others who prepare documents for the presses. "For practical purposes we're slaves to Congress."
The description comes out a bit stronger than he means it, but the point is the same: Every time a federal official speaks or writes a thought that could somehow be deemed worth saving, chances are Schwenk and the agency staff of 3,400 will churn out the print version. Among their primary duties is the daily printing of the Congressional Record, which includes every word uttered on the House and Senate floors.
Since the Government Printing Office opened in 1861, it has figured in the flash points of history. When Congress eulogized Abraham Lincoln, it published the tributes. Same with the declarations of both world wars, the transcripts of Richard Nixon's Watergate tapes, the report on the Challenger explosion, and so on.
The Starr report has created equal drama. Lines form outside the printing office's red-brick headquarters on North Capitol Street on days the printers release batches of Starr's evidence. For this explosive document, the office has armed guards standing watch over the presses. Reporters are forbidden to step off the elevator where new Starr documents are held, for fear one might snatch a thick volume as it jiggles down the production line.
The workers themselves are hardly dazzled by the scene. To them, scandals in Washington roll by like so much tiny print on the presses. Ultimately, this is just another document.
"You get more Starr documents and you go, 'Huh. I wonder what they are,' but then you just have to get to work," says Schwenk, 55, who keeps in his office a picture of himself as an apprentice in 1962, back before his crew cut gave way to a long gray ponytail. "I think I read three pages of the last Starr documents. You know you're a part of history, but that's it."
When Schwenk calls the Starr report "garbage," he is not referring to content. It is the format he objects to. The material includes spiral notebook pages, photographs and disparate logs and records, requiring printers to use a complex technique of photographing every page instead of applying computer technology. After taking the pictures, the printers organize the negatives, create printing plates and finally place those plates on the presses.
Scandals are dissected surgically here. The Starr documents are divided among staff members, and most only handle a series of disjointed parts.
All of the country's most contentious documents are treated with similar dispassion. When the Watergate transcripts were sent to the printing office, printers received two pages each, transcribing documents they could barely piece together as a whole.
"I didn't read any of it," says Clete Ewals, a 65-year-old machinist who has worked at the Government Printing Office since 1969. What Ewals remembers is not the content of the Watergate reports but the sound they made on the presses. "I was just trying to keep all these monsters running," he says, referring to the now-obsolete Linotype machines that set type before there were computerized presses. "It was clatter, clatter, clatter. You couldn't hear anything," he said. "You set the copy and it just went."
Still, long-timers remember how close they got to the material in the old days. Today, printers do much of their work by entering codes on keyboards, but the veterans recall setting photographs in metal plates and retyping history-shaping documents letter by letter.