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Proud to become citizens, despite Clinton scandal


Feeling punky, bunky? Bummed out about the state of the republic and the presidency? Already sick of that numbing civics lesson in Washington? There's always this: 294 men and women from 70 countries raising their hands and swearing an oath to be loyal citizens of the United States in a big, grand ceremony in a big, grand chamber in downtown Baltimore. The nation they adopted might be awash in bizarre scandal and polarizing politics, their president might be impeached, but they took the oath anyway.

Did it gladly. Did it with smiles. Did it with tears.

They renounced princes and potentates and swore allegiance to the United States. They promised to support and defend the Constitution. Some knew the words to "America, the Beautiful" and sang it in their accented voices. I hadn't been to such a ceremony in several years. I confess to goose bumps.

Yesterday, Day Two of William Jefferson Clinton's impeachment trial in Washington -- no goose bumps there, from what we can see -- happened to be naturalization day here. "My dream day," Blanca Lopez, born in Ecuador and eager to raise her hand, called it.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service staged the event in the huge hall of the War Memorial, with its high ceilings, columns, chandeliers and eternal flame. A placard admonishes visitors to "let not your voice, your action pollute the sanctity of an edifice dedicated to those who gave their lives that others might live."

The man in the black robe, Immigration Judge John F. Gossart Jr., arrived precisely at 11 a.m. and all chatter ceased. Nearly 500 men, women and children sat still and silent. An honor guard marched to the front of the grand hall, heels clicking on the marble floor, the only sound. Jeffrey Williams, an INS employee with a beautiful voice, sang the national anthem with elegance and power.

"This is a great day of pride and joy for you and for your fellow Americans," Gossart said. "By your oath, by your commitment, you become citizens. You become Americans."

He asked the 294 citizens-to-be to stand and recite the pledge.

Saverio Fazzari raised his hand and repeated the judge's words. Twenty years out of Canada, married to an American and father of two girls, it was time for him to move from permanent resident to full-fledged citizen. Now he'll have a chance to vote for Republican candidates; he's been with the GOP in spirit for years. His wife, Linda, comes from the other side. "My neighbor thinks I'm just becoming a citizen to negate my wife's vote," Fazzari laughed.

His naturalization kit came with a copy of the oath, the Pledge of Allegiance and a letter from Bill Clinton -- a welcome to citizenship from a president charged with lying under oath about sex.

"Mao had wives and women," declared Youmei Zhang, who practices in Maryland the acupuncture and herbology she learned in China. "But we didn't know that. Now we know that."

Clinton, she says, should have abstained from sexual adventures until after his second term. "Why can't he control himself for eight years?" she asked. "He can't do that? For eight years?"

Apparently not. Maybe he should have tried acupuncture to control his libido.

"It's all a mess, really," said Emmanuel Jeudy, born in Haiti, now at 25 a U.S. citizen. "He's our president. I don't think he should be on trial for a mistake that a lot of guys make. The president is not above the law, but he should not be on trial for this."

Katell Anna Thielemann, a native of France studying law at the University of Maryland, disagreed. She understands why the House of Representatives voted to impeach Clinton -- a lie under oath is a lie under oath, no matter what the subject or context.

"The whole system of justice relies on people telling the truth," she said. "If our leader doesn't tell the truth, we're in big trouble, regardless of what it's about. Taking an oath means a lot. It meant a lot to me today. I got choked up about it. There is a reason why we're asked to take an oath; it brings your conscience into your decisions."

We hear the French laugh at us silly Americans; they believe Clinton's impeachment is moralist much-ado about extramarital sex.

"The press in France is not telling the whole story," Thielemann said. "I've read what they're telling the French; they're saying it's about sex. But the two counts against Clinton have nothing to do with sex; they have to do with perjury and obstruction of justice."

Blanca Lopez, the Ecuador native, slipped into her coat for the walk out of the War Memorial. It was getting to be noon. In Washington, the senators whose names she had to learn as part of a citizenship test -- Sarbanes and Mikulski -- were getting ready to sit for another day of trial.

"It's very sad," Lopez said. "All they focus on is the wrong that the president did, not all the good. What is going on hurts the nation. All the countries that look up to America -- my country, Ecuador -- they look at the big mess that is going on and they lose respect. What the president did is a personal thing, not a treason against the country.

"And that Hillary -- I am proud of her. No matter what they do to diminish her, to put her down, she is still strong, and I admire her for that."

I congratulated Blanca Lopez on her new citizenship. I thanked her for her time.

"Thank you," she said, "for giving me the opportunity to state my feelings."

It's a great country.

Pub Date: 1/16/99

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