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Both Parties Focus on Speech Not Scandal, To Chagrin Of Some

By Alan Greenblatt, CQ Staff Writer

TV newsman Dominic Carter thought the day would at last provide him the chance to get some members of the New York delegation to state, on camera, what they thought about allegations that President Clinton had sex with a young intern.

"We're from New York," Carter announced to the House Press Gallery. "Where do the cameras normally set up?"

Carter, a voluble political reporter for NY1, a cable news station in New York City, told his newfound colleagues that he wanted to know "why Democrats have been hiding."

As it turned out, they were hiding in plain sight. On Jan. 27, when Clinton gave his State of the Union address, congressional Democrats had to respond all day to aggressive herds of reporters demanding to know what their "mood" was, or insisting that they confirm what Hill journalists were convinced was their deepest fear -- that this scandal would sink the president and take them down, too.

But members of Congress had a different agenda than the media. Like good card players, Democrats displayed no anxiety that Clinton's problems would sink him, or them. And Republicans stuck to their political advisers' instructions that they say nothing that might risk converting the president's problem into a partisan brawl.

Even Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., who has been loudly demanding Clinton's impeachment for months, was determined to be bland. "A lot has happened over the past week," he said. "It will take some time for members to digest it."

If Carter had known where to find the stakeout outside the House Democrats' first closed-door caucus since last fall, he would have seen New Yorkers and others happy to tell reporters that, contrary to the news media's fevered expectations, everything was fine, and even dandy.

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., "said he's more optimistic than three months ago about the election," Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a Harlem Democrat, crowed to a group of reporters that quickly swelled to two dozen in a semicircle that pressed him against a bank of elevators.

The notion that things were looking up, not down, for Democrats was not penetrating the hard pumice of the reporters' collective disbelief, so they kept darting questions about the scandal. Rangel retained his bonhomie, chirping about how he looked forward to assuming the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee once Democrats take back the majority. Reporters would have rolled their eyes, were they not quickly on the lookout for more promising interview subjects.

Another member from New York City, Democrat Eliot L. Engel, was even more ardent in his embrace of the president. He said he relished the prospect of taking his traditional spot along the aisle and shaking hands with Clinton as he entered the House chamber for the address.

"Today, more than ever, I find it important to take my seat on the aisle, as I have for nine years," Engel said. "I think Bill Clinton has been a good president, he's a friend of mine, and I stand by him."

Watching reporters hungry for reaction to the scandal swarm around higher-profile colleagues such as Democrats Barney Frank of Massachusetts, and Henry A. Waxman and Vic Fazio of California, Engel leaned against a table in the Rayburn Building hallway and said, "I'm just appalled by the total frenzy, and the lack of anything else so important being reported."

Frank, who survived a sex scandal of his own (his former lover ran a gay prostitution ring out of Frank's apartment), said the experience taught him that the government keeps functioning regardless of the perceived peccadilloes of an individual officeholder.

Like his fellow Democrats, Frank thought Clinton's best hope for good public relations was to focus on anything but the scandal. "It's going to be hard for people to write exclusively about his crotch when he's talking about Social Security and Medicare," he said.

Talk Show Chatter

Meanwhile, from a studio just across the Potomac in Rosslyn, Va., one of Clinton's harshest critics was having his own assumptions about the scandal altered a bit.

Oliver L. North, the central figure in the 1986 Iran-contra scandal and the 1994 GOP nominee for Senate from Virginia, hangs posters in his broadcast booth that liken Clinton to the Unabomber and refer to a Clinton gesture as the "Crime Wave."

"We would not be able to keep our jobs if we were accused of doing the things he's accused of," North told listener "Steve" from Bremerton, Wash.

North was convinced that the audience that tunes into his "common sense radio" show would hold Clinton accountable. But despite his heated references to "President Caligula," North was surprised to find Clinton defenders among callers to his program.

"Clearly, in the minds of most Americans, in these admittedly scientific polls, this situation has not affected his ability to govern," North said with apparent disbelief.

Back in the Capitol, Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., was saying that it came as no surprise to him that figures from earlier political scandals -- of whom North is a prime example -- had survived to react to the current one.

"What I hear is, there isn't a politician around here who hasn't been in a tough spot," he said.

Just before the 9 p.m. start time for the president's address, Cleland was waiting patiently just off the Senate floor for the ritual progression of his colleagues over to the House chamber for the speech.

He introduced himself as "Max" to reporters who came up to him, one by one. Some of them did not even know his party affiliation and recognized him only because he is confined to a wheelchair. One after another, they wanted to know the same thing: "What's the mood?"

Cleland allowed that his mood was fine. When pressed further, he summed up Democratic reaction in general. "This thing has been a raging storm for five days, and not one thing has been proven," he said. "I think the country would be better served if we just keep our mouths shut."

Statuary Hell

Members of Congress are always eager to comment on the State of the Union address, and they pile into the Capitol's Statuary Hall immediately upon its conclusion. There they walk into the midst of a huge and increasingly anxious mass of reporters whose deadlines are in some cases just minutes away. The room takes on the vexing ambiance of a crowded but awful party where everyone is looking desperately for someone better to talk to.

Reporters repeated their by-now familiar questions, and members restated their lack of interest in Clinton's supposed affair.

One radio reporter could not contain his frustration at Arizona Republican Rep. John Shadegg's refusal to be drawn into criticizing Clinton, someone for whom Shadegg and like-minded colleagues usually display little affection. "I'm very disappointed you were so respectful," the reporter said. Shadegg said of course he had been respectful of the president and the proceedings, then quickly changed the subject to discussing his doubts that the federal government had any proper role in determining schoolroom class sizes.

Even Clinton's toughest critics refused to be drawn much further into the scandal, at least on this night. "It's not a political matter or a political situation," Republican Party Chairman Jim Nicholson said. "By our commenting on that, we make it one, so I'm not going to do that."

Such performances inevitably disappointed Dominic Carter. "We only got a shot of one" New York member, he complained as his crew packed up its gear and left Statuary Hall. And even that one, he grumbled, wasn't very useful.

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.
In CQ News This Week

Saturday Jan. 31, 1998

Clinton Budget Reaffirms Stand Against Broad GOP Tax Cuts
House Panel Gets Back to Business, Hoping To Put Rancor Aside
Congress Finds No Easy Answers To Internet Controversies
Long List of Its Own Trespasses Tempers Congress' Judgment
Cleland Warns Against Repeating Tonkin Gulf Mistake
If the Furor Subsides, Will There Be a Case?
Talks on Renaming Airport For Reagan Continue
Both Parties Focus on Speech Not Scandal, To Chagrin Of Some
Clinton Succeeds in Slowing Scandal's Momentum

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