Clinton Trial: Day One: A cold, grey light shines on history

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The Independent Online
THE QUEUE of people waiting to watch the trial of President Bill Clinton were as divided as America itself on the merits of the case. But as they waited, shivering and cold, outside the Capitol they could, at least, agree on one thing: they were there to witness history. That separated them from the large number who think the whole thing is a waste of time and money, and who spent yesterday pondering the stock market, Michael Jordan or the state of their bank accounts.

Let history record that the first in the queue were Alan Goodwin and Ricky Colson from Alexandria, who had been there since 5.20 in the morning, while a grey dawn broke and freezing rain spattered the Tarmac around them. "We want to see history, to be a part of history," said Ricky, shrouded in a rainproof smock. "Nobody alive has ever had the opportunity to witness something like this." "Live," added Alan.

By 10.30, there were 30 people behind them, each certain to get one of the tickets. After that, the seats would be rotated to the next people in line. The ceremonial part of the proceedings had been dispatched the week before, and now the real business was to begin.

This being Washington, it was an erudite and informed queue. Rivero Emilio- Adolfo, a Professor of Constitutional Law from Maryland University, had brought some visiting friends to watch the drama. "This is a historic opportunity they should not miss," he said, sheltered beneath a vast umbrella. "They will have an opportunity to watch democracy in action. The most powerful man in America must answer for his actions," he said approvingly. "This is not a country of caudillos or leaders. This is a country of laws."

Sunil James had come down from New York for a job interview, but it hadn't worked out, so he had come along to watch. "I voted for him twice, in 1992 and 1996," he said of the President. "I'm hoping he will not be found guilty. It's disappointing to see it's come down to this, to lying and partisan politics. It doesn't seem to me what the founders of the Constitution meant."

But others were disappointed precisely because they believed that this would not end with the toppling of a president. Mike, from Fairfax, Virginia, said that he did not "think justice will take place. He should be thrown out of office, but that won't happen. I'm kind of upset. It's a mockery of the country."

And his friend, who preferred not to be identified, agreed. He had watched Question Time the other day, he said, and the House of Commons had disintegrated into laughter as it discussed the proceedings here in Washington. "They're laughing at America. I don't like it," he said.

These divisions echo the broader discussion in the nation: is this the proudest moment of the legal and political order, showing that even the chief executive, voted into office by the people, wielder of the nuclear suitcase, commander in chief, can be brought to book? Or is it a show trial, for form's sake? Has this man so degraded the office of President that he must be thrown out at the first opportunity, or is he the victim of a partisan conspiracy?

As the queue shivered in the chilling wind, the process unwound around them. Boxes of papers were hoisted out of taxis by aides while cameramen herded truckloads of equipment into the building. Whatever it was, it was starting.