In dark political hours, capital shines proudly Tours: In Washington, a sense of awe overcomes the awfulness of the impeachment debate.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- The rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, Ground Zero for the impeachment proceedings unfolding in the House of Representatives, turns out to be an unexpectedly great place to sample grassroots, beyond-the-Beltway opinion about the state of American politics.

Beneath the great, soaring dome with the crowning fresco of George Washington seated between Liberty and Victory, 22-year-old Karmi Hoffman from Houston, Texas, offers hers:

"I think the whole thing is ridiculous."

Hoffman, a senior in history and government at the University of Houston, pauses from craning backward to take a picture of the "Apotheosis of Washington" fresco to say she's been following the process pretty closely.

And?

"I would have lied if I were [President Clinton]," she says. "The whole impeachment process is taking away from the running of the country," Hoffman says. "And the public doesn't care."

Her friend, Keith Irvine, 29, the manager of a Fuddrucker's restaurant, puts in his two cents. He thinks Clinton should be subject to "censureship."

But Hoffman is unmoved. "I think it's very interesting most of these Republicans who would be for the bombing of Iraq are condemning him," she says.

And no, she doesn't think Clinton was "wagging the dog" when he ordered the bombing. "I think his head would have been more on a platter than it would have been had he done nothing. I think this has been coming a long time."

This impeachment debate in miniature is taking place near a heroic statue of Thomas Jefferson, which flanks the doorway to the nearby House chambers. George Washington stands on the other side of the door. The shoes on both men are strikingly shiny. One of the rites of democracy in the Capitol seems to be stroking the toes of the founding fathers.

Down in the Capitol Crypt below the Rotunda, Bob and Rachelle Wiersma have just finished the Capitol's first public tour of the day. They've come to Washington from Orange City, Iowa, for their 10th wedding anniversary.

The crypt, a columned room that ultimately supports the whole dome, may sound like a storage place for Capitol vampires, but it was built to enshrine the body of Washington. (He preferred Mount Vernon, though.) The bier on which Abraham Lincoln lay in state in the Rotunda is on view here.

The Wiersmas have both taught high school history. But Rachelle, 34, now writes and edits textbooks and Bob, 35, is getting his doctorate in counseling.

Rachelle allows that she thinks President Clinton could use a little group therapy.

"I think it would be wonderful," Bob says. " 'Hi, I'm Bill. I'm in sex therapy.' "

Still, Rachelle says she deplores the fact that "presidency has become the fodder for jokes all over the world."

"I don't know how many jokes we heard on the plane," she says. "We got in the taxi we heard more jokes."

Bob says: "The very first thing we heard when we got in the cab was: 'Oh, you came all the way here from Iowa to see the Monica room.' "

No, Rachelle says. "We're here to be in awe of our government. I thought that what was amazing about the tour was that there were people from all over the country saying, 'We are here and we're still really excited about our country.' "

"I'm impressed to be here," Bob offers.

Bob is a big, comfortable-looking, teddy bear kind of guy. Rachelle is cheery, open and thoughtful. They're both committed members of the Christian Reformed Church -- the Dutch Calvinist tradition, Bob explains.

"The Pilgrims were our [forefathers]," Bob says. So they're Puritans, as it were, but they resist being aligned with far-right Christian conservatives.

"We're not Moral Majority kind of people," Rachelle says. "I consider myself more moderate." But of the president's evasive testimony she says: "To me it's perjury. He lied under oath.

"It's not the affair I worry about. I wouldn't impeach him for the affair. But he lied about it, and he lied about it for so long."

She says that any students of hers that lied or plagiarized paid a price. But she hesitates when asked if Clinton should be removed from office.

"We're glad we're not going to have to answer that," Bob says.

Rachelle adds she doesn't think people from "our area of the country are being heard." That's west of the Mississippi and east of California, Bob explains.

"I think to [people there] your word is very, very important," Rachelle says. "You don't go back on your word or you will pay a penalty."

As another tour comes to an end, Glenn Hartnett, 40, a sales manager from Dallas, Texas, picks up souvenirs from the Capitol gift shop just off the Crypt. The best seller today is a Capitol Christmas tree ornament.

"It's kind of a neat time to be here," Hartnett says. "Kind of historical, I guess. I've got a buddy out there picketing with a big red stop sign, saying: 'Republicans in Congress stop the coup d'etat.' "

A Republican whose cousin, Will Hartnett, is a congressman from Dallas, Hartnett's view of the events just next door doesn't go that far. But he thinks the Republicans are not listening to the voters.

"It seems like the majority of the voters don't want him impeached," he says. "It's pretty much partisan all the way. We're wasting lots of tax money on this."

Like many of those queried while on Capitol tours yesterday, he thinks the timing of the missile attacks on Iraq was "kind of weird."

"But they should have taken care of Saddam a few years back," he says.

Donald Perry, a retired diesel mechanic from California, agrees.

"They're saying this a political thing that he [did]," Perry says. "I don't think it is. It's something that needed to be done and should have been done the first time -- right."

Perry is a bit grizzled from a long three days aboard a train. He'd just arrived at Union Station, having come east to visit his son, Eugene, a staff sergeant in the army at Fort Eustis, and his grandson. He sounds tired of the whole Clinton affair.

"Personally, my opinion is: Let's get it over with. Just drop it. Get it out of here. Let's do the country's work," he says. "Maybe the morals are not there, but he's still the president."

Back beneath the dome, Karmi Hoffman, the Texas college student, offers a final thought that may sum up the mood of the everyday Americans here on this truly extraordinary day:

"I love this city," she says. "Except for the politics."

Pub Date: 12/19/98

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