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House theatricals are a bit of a drag

FOR A nation that likes its thrills of the instant variety and whose politics are focused on the sound-bite and the television, there is something curiously old-fashioned and theatrical about the Senate trial of Bill Clinton, a flavour that emerged in much of the press coverage.

This was not universally welcomed. For some, the prospect of days spent listening to men in suits present a detailed legal argument did not go down well. "The First Day Wore On, On, On," The Washington Post commented in its front-page headline.

As the day progressed, said the Post, "it was Dr Seuss who crept to mind. All those senators, normally creatures of constant hubbub, hour after hour in their straight-backed chairs. `All we could do was to sit sit sit,' wrote Seuss. `And we did not like it, not one little bit'."

Much of the action was in nuances of meaning, or lay in the behind-the- scenes manoeuvring, The New York Times noted. "The impeachment trial of the President was not a straightforward legal proceeding that would necessarily move automatically to the standard calling of witnesses and cross-examination," it reported.

"Nor is this a jury quite like any other ... these are 100 senators well aware of public impatience with the Monica Lewinsky case." And, of course, "some senators - particularly those up for election in 2000 - were likely to consider not only the facts of the case but how their votes would affect their own personal political survival."

The Los Angeles Times reported that as well as their political motives that were on show, "there were many reminders of human frailty". Blasphemous though it may have been, "at least two senators appeared to nod off as the dry legal presentations stretched into the late afternoon". Other senators had other problems.

The Manchester Union-Leader commented: "It's a good thing for John Kerry of Massachusetts that the no-talking rule isn't strictly enforced. Were it so, he might be going to prison for life." Mr Kerry, the paper said, "is a regular gabber".

The Union-Leader noted some of the odd touches that make the Senate such a compelling theatre, if a little slow. "Stenographers stand in the aisles punching out the words of history. With their machines dangling from their shoulders they resemble cigarette girls from a 1940s nightclub."

And "in the back of the room Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, who is troubled by a vision problem, has put on dark glasses. He looks very Hollywood."

Much of America was not watching at all. "With Michael Jordan retiring, Mike Tyson cussing and the [Atlanta] Falcons heading for the Metrodome on Sunday, even the start of the first presidential impeachment trial in 130 years had a hard time competing for metro Atlanta television viewers," noted The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. At a local bar, "customers asked owner Danny Ciorrocco, 49, to switch back to (sports television) after Ciorrocco flipped to CNN." One local student described herself as "burnt out," and complained that impeachment was "always in the news".

There was some drama outside the Capitol building, The Los Angeles Times reported, as "a woman from Marina del Rey wearing California's idea of a winter coat passed out from hypothermia as she waited in line in a freezing rain to get a spectator's seat". But then perhaps she wasn't missing much, according to Nikki Heidepriem, a Maryland woman who listened from the public gallery. "If people are looking for a Perry Mason moment," she told the paper, "they won't find it here."