A congressman on the fence took his uncertainty to his constituents Tuesday night in a district as diverse and as divided as the rest of America. The town hall setting was truly in a town hall, the sort of touch-the-people venue that President Clinton himself might have relished, had the topic not been his own punishment.
Rep. Christopher Shays, a moderate Republican from Connecticut, had what amounted to an extended conversation with an overflow crowd of more than 2,000 that included his friends, neighbors, tennis partner, elderly mother and constituent Paul Newman about whether he should vote for or against impeachment. Shays has an appointment to talk with the president today.
“I will be the last one to leave this hall,” Shays said as he stood on the stage of a hall in this Atlantic coastal city, a place where the sprawl of New York City begins swallowing the lower reaches of New England. “I am determined that you will have your say.”
Then, it was their turn. Shays, who recently was against impeachment but now is wavering, had people take the microphones by alternating opinions--one person for impeachment followed by one person against it--reflecting his own split opinion on the subject.
Like much of democracy, though, it was messy, with the almost evenly split crowd testing the limits of town hall decorum with boos, catcalls, snickers, chants and open-mike references to Paula Corbin Jones’ nose, greedy HMOs, Monica S. Lewinsky’s thong and the sexual shenanigans of other famous people.
Many of those who spoke found that once they had a microphone in their hand, they could not let go and found themselves spouting, as one speaker said, “all those sound bites we’ve heard on television.”
“I see people I know and respect, and I see them acting in a way they wouldn’t want their kids to act,” Shays said at one point during the forum that ran more than four hours.
“Let me finish--then you can shout me down!” a St. John’s University professor said to another speaker.
Forum Allows Public Opportunity to Opine
Amid the unruly, Oprah-like aspects of open-mike night, however, were opinions that reflected the paradoxes and mixed feelings of a bizarre moment in the country’s history: a popular president at war with an opposition party over a series of illicit sexual encounters and the degrees to which he lied about it. Televised nationally on cable TV, the forum provided a rare moment of public passion at the grass-roots over an issue that many Americans have tuned out.
Michael Doyle of the struggling city of Bridgeport--"and damn proud of it"--pointed out that the founding fathers limited impeachment to high crimes and misdemeanors “because they did not want to have an opposition Congress do a lynching of a sitting president. Thank God for Monica Lewinsky because if there wasn’t a Monica Lewinsky we would have been at [independent counsel] Ken Starr’s door demanding that $50 million that could have gone to Bridgeport!”
Charles Merrick of Fairfield apologized to Shays for calling the congressman last week and threatening not to vote for him for wavering on impeachment. “If we do not remove the president, then we leave the citizens with the impression that power and corruption go hand and hand,” he said.
Shays at times sounded like an auctioneer as he tried to equitably balance the fitful flow of public opinion. “Do we have a no? Do we have a no against impeachment? Do we have a no?” he shouted after one man gave a ponderous harangue against a president whom he said “has stained his good name.”
One man asked whether Shays had ever invited a young impressionable intern into his office for sexual pleasure, then lied about it to everybody. He was making a rhetorical yet overlong point to persuade Shays to vote for impeachment. But people were stunned anyway.
“I need to ask you to stop,” Shays said as the man continued on in the same vein.
Shays Explains His Evolution to Indecision
Shays, a member of Congress since 1987, gave the crowd a somewhat tortured analysis of the evolution of his own transition to indecision.
“I was hoping in the course of the evening that in this process would be the wisdom of Solomon,” Shays said. “And I hear glimpses of this.”
One person actually had a question rather than a remark: What will he tell Clinton? Shays said he would tell him, among other things, “that the president’s word is not good in Washington.”
“Whatever the president says to me will have no impact on how I vote,” Shays added.
Norwalk is part of a district that includes the eye-popping wealth of Greenwich and the decaying neighborhoods of Bridgeport. The crowd reflected all of those areas, though it skewed more heavily to the upscale. Newman strolled through the overflow crowd in the hallway unbothered by anybody but reporters.
“I didn’t give up my citizenship because I became an actor,” Newman said. Of the forces now arrayed against the president, he said: “I don’t think this is what the framers of the Constitution had in mind.”
Sitting alone in the audience was author David Nevin, whose latest historical novel is “1812: A Novel.” “I think it’s a . . . outrage that they’re talking about impeachment, to put it directly,” he said.
Justin Miller, a 12th-grader from Darien, is for impeachment and, as somebody who wants to be a lawyer when he grows up, enjoys following the unfolding scandal, what he described as “a long government class. “I love this,” said Miller.
One person with a strong opinion was Peggy Shays, the congressman’s mother, who said she wants Clinton impeached but won’t hold it against her son if he votes against it. “I know my son,” she said. “He votes his conscience.”
Crowds Line Up Early for Forum
The big hall, which doubles both as City Hall and a concert hall, filled up early, and the first to arrive were Seth Weinstein and his partner of 20 years, Catherine Haala. Admitted Clinton-crisis junkies, only in the last week have they found themselves agreeing that Clinton should be impeached.
Weinstein, a Democrat who said he has taken half a dozen days off from his real estate business to watch televised hearings on the matter, only came to his conclusion the last week after the president, he said, failed once again to admit that he perjured himself.
Weinstein now sees the president as a character in a Greek tragedy.
“Here’s someone who came up through tremendous adversity to become president, and managed through his own flaws to destroy himself,” he said.
Video excerpts from Rep. Shays’ town meeting on impeachment are available on The Times’ Web site: https://www.latimes.com/scandal