The Impeachment Of A President: Reaction On The Street - Groundswell of sympathy for Clinton

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The Independent Online
THEY MAY not have watched all of it - the four votes, their President on the White House lawn vowing to press on, his eyes almost shut with exhaustion and emotion, or even the speech from Bob Livingston, the Speaker- elect of the House, announcing his intent to resign. But yesterday everybody knew what had happened. And most, apparently, did not like it.

There was not shock among the citizenry, but rather a numbed acknowledgement that a historical bridge had been crossed. And although there are divisions for sure, a polarisation between those who wanted President Bill Clinton impeached and those who thought the punishment too harsh, the arguing had, on the whole, subsided. In the churches they prayed that the whole thing, however it ends, should be over soon.

True, at the posh Innis Arden Country Club in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, debate still sputtered on. There on the practice putting green, with a tall flag bearing the stars-and-stripes, James Borges argued with his golfing pal Thomas Curtin as he handed him a wrapped gift for Christmas. Mr Borges liked what the Republicans did. Mr Curtin thought it an embarrassing nonsense.

"I think Clinton did wrong and the Republican party was following the principles that were set up in the constitution," Mr Borges said. "Maybe too much has been made of the sex, but the President lied and he should be chased out of office." Mr Curtin rolled his eyes and laughed. "I think this is so terrible because around the world this makes us look like a bunch of idiots."

In countless interviews yesterday with voters on the East and West coasts finding anybody willing to celebrate the votes on Saturday was a tall order. The common strand was sadness, while a clear majority were angry at the Republicans. The same views wereevident in snap polls that showed the popularity rating of the President rising. Notably, the NBC poll showed his approval rating up from 68 to 72 per cent. A total of 62 per cent said he should not resign.

"There is nothing to say at this stage, except to hope that the whole thing backfires on the Republicans terribly," said Tim Pershing, a camera technician in Hollywood, where support for President Clinton remains strong. Bill Rubenstein, a screenwriter, has been trying to spend an hour a day telephoning politicians, conservative think-tanks, anyone who might listen to his argument that impeachment is wrong. "These people are doing something profoundly evil and, for the most part, they don't even know it. So I try to tell them," he said.

Indulging in their ritual Sunday morning hour at their local bagel shop, Alfred and Rosalie Hutter of Stamford, Connecticut, understand that the President erred in his private life but disagree that it warrants his removal from office. "We have just had our 50th anniversary," Mr Sutter, a limousine driver, explained. (The couple celebrated with a QE2 voyage to England last month). "Neither I nor my wife have known sexual relations with anyone else in all that time, and what the President did was wrong. But on the other hand I am not so offended by it that I think he should be driven out. They say he lied to protect his family. Well yeah, we can understand that."

Mr Sutter said the news that Mr Livingston had committed adultery made him laugh. "Actually I was hysterical," he said.

President Clinton, some have suggested, is America's first black President, because of the affinity felt by many in the African American community towards him. In packed congregations at several churches in Harlem yesterday, the mood was one of dismay and intense sympathy for the first family.

At the minuscule St Samuel Church of God in Christ on East 125th Street, the worshippers had to wait for 20 minutes before the 11 o'clock service finally got under way. That was because their preacher, the Rev Amos Kemper, was in his office discussing the impeachment vote with his fellow church leaders. All were angry.

"They should give him another chance, everybody should be given another chance," offered Katie Stokes. The little plastic badge on her dress might have been for Henry Hyde, the chairman of the House judiciary committee: "Ain't nobody God but God," it read.

The Rev James Duncan watched all of Saturday's proceedings on his television. "They've been trying to put Clinton's back up against the wall in Washington, asking him to confess to perjury and so forth. He can't do it though because they would put him in jail. He is a good president because he is the first president who has been approachable for us."

Does this mean Mr Duncan would not vote Republican next time? "I won't be voting Republican no time," he spits.

"There is no minority in this country who should be voting for that party, because it is the Good Ol' Boy party," Mr Kemper interjects. "What we saw yesterday was really the dogma of the human race, the dogma to hurt. The Republicans want to ignore us, the people, and that's got to be wrong."

Seventy blocks south at St Patrick's Catholic Cathedral, where the congregation was almost entirely white, Cardinal Patrick O'Connor asked for prayers, not for President Clinton but for the impeachment process - that it should be "resolved soon and justly". They were prayers offered, after all, in a season that is meant to be about peace and goodwill.

George Sinko, a retired advertising executive who travels from Long Island to worship at St Patrick's, is a long-time Republican. His views, however, were with the majority at yesterday's service. "What President Clinton did does not constitute an impeachable offence in my view.

"This whole thing has been entirely partisan. I think it has been terribly unfair and is distracting the country from so many other important things he should be caring about."

As the politicians from both parties in Washington headed home to their districts and their families yesterday they leave one drama behind them and know that another drama awaits them in the new year, the expected trial in the Senate. For sure, they will be hearing from their constituents over the Christmas season.

But, as they see the dismay over the partisanship that reigns in Washington, they may want to consider these words written above the makeshift altar of St Samuel's Church in Harlem: "We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord and we pray that all unity may, one day, be restored".



Thomas Mann, Brookings Institution:

"It is not an ennobling time. As someone who's watched national politics for almost 30 years, I've never been so ashamed of our national political leaders, and never so saddened by the behaviour of Congress."

Barbra Streisand, actress and staunch Clinton supporter: "Who could have imagined that we would be living in a time when those we elected to office would turn off their phones and unplug their fax machines in order to ignore the voices of the American people?"

Walter Isaacson, the managing editor of Time magazine, which named Bill Clinton and Kenneth Starr its "men of the year": "Decades hence, we will still be debating the meaning of the great Clinton-Starr struggle and picking at the lingering wounds."

Arianna Huffington, conservative columnist: "Congress is not the appropriate venue for Livingston to tell his wife, as he did in the middle of an impeachment debate, he loves her... nor is his resignation a sign of political valour. Instead, it blurs irreparably the line between the president's serial infidelities and his serial lying under oath."