WASHINGTON -- There was no talk of steamy late-night phone calls or intimate encounters in windowless hallways or even the decorously termed "inappropriate" activity between Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton.
Instead, the man behind the presidential scandal investigation and the salacious report to Congress opened impeachment hearings yesterday with the rectitude of the minister's son that he is, the bland earnestness of C-SPAN.
His hands folded before him, his manner conveying an almost defiant calm, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr laid out his case against the president in a plodding monotone that sent one lawmaker off to the gym and several spectators in search of caffeine.
Unshakable in defending his probe, Starr listened stone-faced as Democrats repeatedly attacked him.
But he sounded more like Atticus Finch, the upright lawyer-hero of "To Kill a Mockingbird," than the overzealous "sex-obsessed" prosecutor that Clinton allies have long decried.
"Mr. Chairman, members, I revere the law," the mild-mannered independent counsel said. "I am proud of what we have accomplished.
"We were assigned a difficult job. We have done it to the best of our abilities. We have tried to be both fair and thorough."
Widely disliked by a public that has grown weary of the investigation, Starr wryly acknowledged his loss of the public relations battle.
"My experience is in the law and the courts," he said at the close of his more than two-hour opening statement.
"I am not a man of politics, of public relations or of polls -- which I suppose is patently obvious at this point."
About a quarter of the way into his presentation, a few Democrats began to straggle out.
"I'm going to the gym," Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts told reporters. "This is the redacted version of his report. The report without the sex. I guess he felt comfortable writing about sex, but not talking about it."
The hearing, packed with reporters, photographers, lawyers and congressional staff, stretched well into the night. It took place in the same House committee room where the Watergate impeachment hearings were held nearly a quarter-century ago.
Behind the panel members, in fact, were two portraits -- one of the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, who presided over yesterday's proceedings, and one of former Rep. Peter W. Rodino, the Democrat who oversaw the Watergate impeachment inquiry.
While there was the expected partisan bickering throughout, Hyde tried to set an exalted tone for the proceedings, saying the task at hand was nothing less than deciding "whether to recommend impeachment of the president of the United States."
But the gravitas and historic nature of the proceedings seemed a world apart from the carnival-like atmosphere buzzing in the hallways and outside the House office building.
A man dressed up as Thomas Jefferson crashed a news conference held by Rep. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, in a lobby where mini-TV studios were set up for the day.
"If you want Bill Clinton, you gotta take a piece out of me, too. I had an affair. Impeach ME!" the Jefferson character yelled before being removed by Capitol police.
"Thank you, Mr. President," Graham replied.
Outside the Rayburn House Office Building, a group of $l protesters -- including a couple who had driven all night from Jackson, Ohio, to unfurl their "Impeach William Jefferson Clinton" banner -- gathered with signs such as, "Thank You Judge Starr" and "Fire the Liar."
An 8-year-old Cub Scout from Germantown dragged a sign that said, "Thank you, Ken Starr."
Among the group was a man in a Scottish kilt who played the Mickey Mouse Club theme song on bagpipes; he was unclear about whom or what he was comparing to the cartoon rodent.
Bart Everly, a New York filmmaker, said he was shooting a documentary on sex and politics. He said he was examining the proceedings "from a gay point of view" and focusing on Frank, an openly gay congressman.
And Michael Moore, the independent moviemaker who produced "Roger and Me," was there to film the first episode of his cable-TV show, "The Awful Truth," to begin airing in April.
"I came out to look for No Doz, but I'll accept coffee," Moore said, emerging from the Democrats' offices conspicuous in a pair of jeans, khaki jacket and green baseball cap with a giant "S." The letter usually stands for the Michigan State University Spartans, he said, but yesterday it stood for "Starr" or "sex police."
Moore, a fierce Starr critic, said the impeachment inquiry was ready-made comedic television.
"It's already satirical in and of itself," he said. "There's very little work for us to do."
At the other end of the ideological spectrum, David Bossie, a Clinton foe and former investigator for the House committee that examined campaign fund-raising abuses, said: "As a nation, we are better off for having gone through this exercise. Maybe today the beginning of the end of this investigation. I hope that it's not."
But the public seemed to feel differently. Perhaps reflecting the public's lack of interest in impeachment proceedings, there was a fairly short line of people waiting for a 30-minute turn in one of two seats reserved for the public. A dozen or so other spectators joined the overflow crowd of reporters who watched on television in a hearing room.
One who had waited since 8 a.m. yesterday for a half-hour of live action was Alex Boulton, of Baltimore, a history teacher at Villa Julie College.
"It's a historical event," he said, explaining his interest. "It's also a travesty of justice. There are no substantive charges against Clinton that come anywhere near being an impeachable offense."
Unlike the Watergate hearings, he said, the Clinton impeachment hearings, to which he was listening on the radio while waiting in line, were "rather banal."
But if there was more wind and words than high drama in yesterday's hearing, it marked the culmination of Starr's four-year inquiry and the start of the finale to a year of scandal saturation.
A hush fell over the room as the independent counsel entered yesterday morning, with a slight smile and a handshake for a few Republicans, accompanied by several associates and his spokesman.
First, the panel debated the fairness of giving no more than a half-hour to Clinton's lawyer to question Starr.
"You are disrupting the continuity of this meeting," Hyde said, as Democrats unsuccessfully pressed the case for more time.
"We are disrupting a railroad, that's what we're disrupting," retorted Rep. Melvin Watt, a North Carolina Democrat.
As the two sides took turns questioning Starr, he was alternately attacked as a "federally paid sex policeman" and praised as a meticulous, even-handed investigator.
Republican Mary Bono of California, the newest member of the committee, said Starr had seemed to her like a character out of "Groundhog Day," a figure seen ducking into his car with a large cup of coffee day after day.
"It's nice to see," she said, "that behind the spin, there's a human."
What they said
Kenneth W. Starr: "The president's intimate relationship with a subordinate employee was transformed into an unlawful effort to thwart the judicial process."
Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.): "The hearing today is another step in our attempt to carry out our constitutional duty to determine whether facts exist which indicate that the president of the United States committed impeachable offenses."
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.): "While an independent counsel can and should pursue a case with vigor, I and many others believe that Mr. Starr has crossed that line into obsession."
Pub Date: 11/20/98