WASHINGTON -- By 3: 35 p.m., only one person was left standing by the Hate and Hypocrisy sign outside the Capitol. The woman from the National Mad as Hell campaign was sitting alone on the cold grass, no mob of fellow protesters in sight. Even the baby Jesus and portable Wise Men, symbols of hope in the divisive season of politics, were packed up and hauled off the marble steps of Congress.
History was supposed to be boldly in evidence this day.
History, it seems, went home early.
Instead of the solemnity of the moment, what Washington delivered during yesterday's impeachment debate was lots of catty commentary by outraged lawmakers, some general amazement by small groups of spectators and the occasionally grave political statement.
"There's no book here," said Jimmy Breslin, the New York columnist and author, as he trolled the halls of Congress looking for a story. "This is no best-seller."
Far more dramatic was the behind-the-scenes commentary. California Republican Rep. Mary Bono said relations between both sides of the aisle had grown so abysmal with the vituperative impeachment debate, members were even throwing common courtesies out the window.
"For the first time since I've been here, I've seen Republican members walk out and say have a nice day to Democratic members, and the Democrats just sneer back," said Bono, who was elected to replace her late husband, Sonny.
Even her children are tiring of the impeachment chatter.
"My daughter was watching TV and she said, 'Oh, there's mom, she's dealing with the president again,' " Bono said. "Then she pushed her video and pushed 'play' so she could watch her video -- the Rugrats movie or whatever. My children are tired with this and bored with it."
Bono said she felt sad not to be home this weekend before Christmas, but found one saving grace: A gift for her daughter. After a long search, aided by calls to her congressional office prompted by a comment in a speech here, she finally found a Furby.
A projectile Furby could have come in handy in the Speaker's Lobby.
In that portrait-lined corridor just off the House floor, there was little Christmas spirit and even less good will toward men.
By the afternoon, Rhode Island Democrat Patrick J. Kennedy was calling it "an outrage" that Georgia Republican Bob Barr had quoted from a 1962 national address by John F. Kennedy in his floor speech. A few minutes later, an infuriated Kennedy yelled at Barr that he resented the use of "my uncle's words" by a man who attended a rally held by a white supremacist group.
Last summer, Barr delivered a speech to the group -- the Council of Conservative Citizens -- but said he did not share the group's views. With about a dozen reporters looking on yesterday, Barr tried to stop Kennedy, saying it was "wrong to interject" his comments in the hallowed Speaker's Lobby. Kennedy continued to yell at the blanching Barr.
With sarcasm, Barr replied: "You say what you like, young man, you do what you want."
The 31-year-old Kennedy, apparently offended by being called "young man," countered: "I'm a duly elected member of this body from my state."
Barr shot back: "Oh, I'm impressed. I'm duly impressed."
That's nothing compared to what they would have said to each other in Australia.
Tourists sitting in the spectator's gallery on a visit from Sydney said their elected representatives shout insults equivalent to "pig swill" on the floor of their chamber.
"They're much more professional here," said Sydney resident Ruhl Palioca, who was visiting relatives in the United States and decided to take his wife and two children to the proceedings.
Other foreign visitors were by turns bemused and appalled at this uniquely American day.
Outside the White House, Christmas music floated from hidden speakers and tourists snapped pictures of relatives in front of the sun-washed, garland-hung mansion. A French couple dismissed the proceedings as "silliness." A Londoner called it an unfortunate waste of time."
But visiting from her home in Brussels, Belgium, Michelle Silver, an American, said the looming Clinton impeachment couldn't help but dampen the trip for her.
"I feel sad for him, regardless if he lied," she said. "He's a world leader."
Not everyone feels so reverent. At Political Americana, a store selling buttons, posters and political memorabilia three blocks from the Capitol, manager Thane Fake yesterday awaited a new shipment of the store's hottest-selling item:
Three cases, 96 rolls each, of toilet paper imprinted with excerpts of the Starr report.
It was due any moment and couldn't come soon enough, he said. He predicted the shop would be sold out in three days. Behind his register, a waiting list 30 names long of people ready to shell out $9.95 a roll. They included congressional staff members and even a former senator who had ordered 10 rolls. One customer insisted her order be sent by overnight express.
"It couldn't come at a better time," he said. "People have called from all over the country."
So maybe people would rather read about it.
Anything to explain the relative lack of crowds in the House to view this historic debate. Capitol police were out in extra force, but the lines 200-strong never appeared. Instead, about 80 BTC people showed up -- smaller than crowds for the Social Security and Medicare debates.
Harte Peary Stafford was one of the few who did show up, with his Christmas tie and Santa hat in tow. ("I wouldn't wear it in the chamber," he said.) Instead, he took the day off to witness with a certain measure of glee the fate of a president he doesn't like much.
"I'm not going to cheer," he said. "I'll bite my lip."
Just outside, Furman French settled in for a long, lonely fight on the East Lawn of the Capitol after arriving on a plane from Naples, Fla. yesterday morning. All day the retired airline pilot stood on the grass with a sign suggesting that impeachment could lead to riots.
"How would you describe a day like this?" he said. "I cannot believe the American people can be so indifferent. You could find more people at a Wal-Mart."
There was a throat-catching moment or two when the importance of the event struck home.
House Reading Clerk Paul Hays read the articles of impeachment in a slow, steady voice to a full chamber whose members include Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, for whom Hays had read articles of impeachment in 1988 when the Florida Democrat was removed as a federal judge.
At least one person found some good in the situation last night: John Rodas, manager of the Domino's Pizza shop four blocks from the White House. Orders from a White House staff working around the clock jumped from the typical 25 pizzas a day to more than 100.
Pub Date: 12/19/98