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:

The High-Minded Dismissal. This is the favorite of the savvier Dems, notably House Democratic Caucus head Vic Fazio and Minority Leader Richard Gephardt. How does the high-minded dismissal work? Put on a tight, sour smile when Flytrap question is asked, sigh deeply, then say exactly this sentence: "The meeting was very, very positive. [Always "very, very." Never just "very."] We discussed issues. Issues that the American People care about: Social Security, the patient's bill of rights ..." It never fails: As soon as the horde hears the words "Social Security," a silence falls. Pens stop scratching, cameramen turn off their high beams. Then reporters turn away and start talking to each other.

The Logorrheic Dismissal. The choice of more awkward Dems, this requires dismissing talk of Lewinsky, then talking endlessly about why you're not talking about her. Pennsylvania's Paul Kanjorski is today's master, lecturing reporters on why he would not talk about Flytrap, why reporters should not ask him about it, and why they should be ashamed for even mentioning the subject. Time spent on Flytrap: 15 minutes. Time spent on the "issues voters in my district care about": 4 minutes.

Dismissal Interruptus. Practiced by a few, perhaps more squeamish, members. This involves a disjuncture between mouth and brain. The mouth becomes literally incapable of talking about the scandal: "He has already addressed this once. He announced that he did not have a relationship with, a ... a ...," trails off one well-coiffed member. "There was no discussion. We did not get into any of the diff ...," says Norm Dicks of Washington, swallowing his words. (If that were my name, I might not want to talk about the scandal either.)

Istill don't get to see the president. While the Democrats are mouthing these sweet nothings by the front door, the president heads out a side door and leaves through a blocked-off corridor. (Reporters used to complain about Reagan avoiding the press. How long has it been since Clinton answered a question?)

Since I was in the neighborhood, I thought I should drop by another scandal landmark on the Hill: the House Judiciary Committee. Any presidential impeachment will go through this committee. This is a prospect all America should anticipate with glee. The Judiciary Committee offers as fine a display of intellect and surliness as can be found in Washington. If impeachment comes, the Judiciary Committee may or may not be judicious, but it will certainly be intemperate.

Today's business is a class action lawsuit reform bill that everyone seems to agree with. But the Judiciary Committee, bless its heart, is a committee that can disagree to agree. After a few minutes of collegial discussion, presided over with mountainous dignity by Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., Capitol Hill's genial uncle, the committee reverts to type.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who has never found a subject he doesn't like arguing about (and has never started an argument he didn't win), introduces an amendment. It would, and I'm hazy on this, make it either harder or easier to dismiss class action suits. Whichever it is, Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte vehemently disagrees. Goodlatte, one of the new breed of Republicans who looks like a choirboy and acts like Savanarola, counters Frank at high volume.

Frank responds by yelling Congress' parliamentary mantra: "Will the gentleman yield his time?" Since Frank: 1) talks incredibly fast; 2) has a thick accent (Bayonne, N.J., not Boston); and 3) seems to have cotton wool lodged in his cheeks, this sounds more like "Wildegenmenyeelistime?" Goodlatte ignores Frank and raises his own voice further. Frank counters by yelling the phrase again and again and again. By the fifth iteration, all that remains is "Wigenyeel?" Meanwhile, Frank is being goaded on by Democratic allies New York's Jerrold Nadler and California's Howard Berman (a Jerry Springer lookalike, incidentally). Ohio Republican Steven Chabot has buried his head in his hands and is yanking his cheeks in frustration. Impeachment-crazed Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., who looks explosive even in repose, has turned an even beetier shade of red than usual. (Whenever I see Barr, I think of Yosemite Sam, steam pouring out of his ears.) In the corner, Rep. Stephen Buyer, R-Ind., seems to be flirting with Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif. Hyde, who's trying desperately to be patient, is fingering his gavel like he wants to heave it at Frank. And this is what happens when they agree!

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