Flytrap on Capitol Hill

Aug. 6 1998 3:30 AM

Flytrap on Capitol Hill

In which the president visits Capitol Hill and says NOTHING about the scandal.

The dirty little secret of my journalistic career is that, despite having lived in Washington for 23 years and having been a reporter for five, I have never seen a president in the flesh. (Well, I watched a Clinton speck through binoculars during his first inauguration, and I once saw George Bush running, but he was still vice president.) Today is my chance to remedy that.

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The president is visiting Capitol Hill for a private session with House Democrats. Everyone knows Clinton won't say anything to the press assembled outside, but the horde has gathered anyway. We are hoping that he'll tell the Democratic House members something about the scandal in private, and they will pass it on to us.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

By the time I arrive at 9:15 a.m., the president is already inside the conference room. (He ducked the press and entered through a side door.) Nearly 100 reporters are swarming outside, and a dozen cameras are trained on the microphone bank by the room's exit. (Capitol Hill security is treating the press with all the respect we have come to expect: We are penned behind Tensators, and anyone who dares step past the guide ropes is yelled at, then moved back by Capitol police officers. Even Bob Schieffer, star of CBS news, is herded like livestock.)

When reporters gather, rumors follow. Among the utterly unsubstantiated rumors circulating today: 1) The FBI found DNA on the dress; and 2) Clinton aides are quietly calling members of Congress and asking how they would respond to a mea culpa.

Cameramen and reporters buttonhole members as they begin trickling out around 10, and it is immediately and disappointingly obvious that the president said nothing about Topic A, and his Democratic allies didn't ask him about it. One by one the Dems file past, and one by one they are drilled with the same question by the 100-mouthed monster: "Was there any discussion of the president's, ah, legal troubles?"

And one by one they answer.

Gene Green of Texas: "No discussion at all. ... No one brought it up. ... NOTHING was brought up. ... AT ALL."

Ron Klink of Pennsylvania: "No one did. ... No one talked about it. ... No one did. ... NO ONE."

Is it possible, dear reader, that 200 Democratic members of Congress--who are congenitally incapable of silence on any subject--can spend an hour in private with the president and not talk about the 800 pound gorilla in the room? It is.

After a few of these futile interviews, I begin to discern three distinct genres of nonanswer:

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