Capital crowd watches history Lines: Americans queued up in the rain for a chance to see the House impeachment debate and vote.

October 09, 1998|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Many stood for an hour or more in a steady downpour, but they seemed to think it was worth it. They weren't waiting to get into a movie or a football game, after all. Underneath that great white dome and up two flights of majestic winding stairs was something you don't get to see everyday. In fact, on average you get to see it only once every 74 years. Those are Halley Comet-sized intervals. Luckily, this phenomenon you could see on a cloudy day.

"I wanted to be present at an historic event," said Los Angeles attorney Gary Paul Andre in a refrain uttered by many of the scores of people waiting to catch a glimpse of yesterday's House impeachment debate and vote. "I watched almost every minute of the Watergate hearings. It's part of the reason I became a lawyer."

Andre, 48, was in Washington to be sworn in Monday as a member of the Supreme Court bar. When he realized he could stay on a few extra days and see the House debate, he didn't hesitate. "I was at Woodstock when I was young," he said. "I wanted to be present again at something that would affect the rest of the country."

Kevin and Susan Koehn, a couple on vacation from Milwaukee, also wanted to see such a momentous event. Kevin, a salesman, said the last time he stood in line in the rain was for Green Bay Packers tickets. He and his wife were too young to remember Watergate, which seemed to make Susan feel defensive. "We were alive then," she said.

Gene Gilman, a retired safety manager from the Silicon Valley, wasn't going to miss the debate. He was planning to visit his sister near Washington anyway, but flew in a day early to watch history in the making. "I was in World War II and didn't expect to get back, so I wanted to see the government I helped defend in action."

Gilman approved the House action ("I am extremely disappointed in the president taking away the dignity of the office"), but partisans from both sides shared equally in the excitement of being present for such a significant occasion. Like the representatives on the House floor, none of the spectators seemed to expect that they would undergo a change of heart upon hearing the debate. And like the rest of the world, no one held out much hope for a surprise ending.

"We knew the Republicans were going to make sausage," said Malcolm Glenn, an optician from outside San Francisco who had just witnessed some of Henry Hyde's remarks. "Of course, that was a really dumb thing for Clinton to do."

On that, Republicans and Democrats in line were in agreement. "I'm disgusted with Clinton's behavior," said California cardiologist Damon Kelsay. "How could he be so indiscreet is beyond me. But I don't think he should be impeached. Kenneth Starr, on the other hand, is someone who should be on trial."

Because of the unusually large crowd, spectators were rotated into the public galleries above the House floor. Most were allowed to watch for 15 to 30 minutes before they were ushered out to make room for a new group. Some, like Andre, kept getting back in line again. When a guard finally wised up to him, Andre told him he had left his bag in the gallery and managed another trip inside.

No one left the galleries giving high marks to the oratory. Some, like Cheryl Douglas, a landscape architect from San Francisco, left the chamber unexpectedly disturbed by what they had witnessed.

She had been seated in an area with young staff workers for House members, both Republicans and Democrats. "They didn't take it seriously at all," she said. "They were sitting there snickering with each other. It sent chills up my spine, especially if you presume that these are people who aspire to be politicians themselves someday."

Despite the historic proportions of the debate, Andy Long, an eighth-grader visiting with his class from Ohio, admitted to boredom. "I was falling asleep," he said.

His friend Chad Cutcher, wiser in the ways of public relations, interrupted. "I thought it was pretty cool that everyone could get along and talk about something that is so important in American life.

"But," he added, "a lot of people spend an awful lot of time walking around. And Newt Gingrich doesn't do too much at all."

Pub Date: 10/09/98

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