The impeachment: ringside seats go empty

Almost every time a rock star breezes into town, the media love to find the diehard fans who camp outside the box office many, many hours before concert tickets go on sale. The lines around the performance center go for blocks, littering the streets with lawn chairs, sleeping bags, and coolers.

However, outside the venue that I would assume would be the showcase for the hottest ticket in the country - the Senate impeachment trial - the queues do not snake so dramatically and thousands of fans do not camp out. Unlike an oft-scheduled high-priced music orgy, it apparently takes more than a century for a historic event to make it onto the marque. Even Haley's Comet draws more of a crowd when it shoots across the sky every 76 years.

I was one of the relatively few citizens to attend President Clinton's impeachment trial. Once seated in the US Senate gallery, I was amazed to see many empty seats dotting the spectator balcony. Attendance was more like that of a polka-band concert than an event showcasing one of the many checks and balances created by our Founding Fathers. The audience turnout was truly pathetic. I was ashamed, sad that while millions fight for political freedom around the globe, few Americans ventured to their nation's capital to watch a momentous event in US history, a political jam session.

Many of those who ventured into this ad hoc courtroom spent only a few minutes before scampering out. Other observers who remained in their seats frequently seemed to be having more fun spotting senators' bald spots; some journalists looked bored; and Chief Justice William Rehnquist got up to stretch his legs.

I can't understand why this performance wasn't standing room only. In fact, getting in was a breeze, a bit of fresh air in the bureaucratic morass that is Washington. A friend and I simply showed up at his senator's office and asked for tickets. We jumped on the Senate subway to the Capitol, presented our passes, and we were in. I waited longer to be admitted to the Jackson Pollack exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.

It seems that every few years there is a new trial of the century. In 1999, the legal spectacle is taking place in the US Senate. Court TV viewers had Kato Kaelin; C-SPAN junkies are stuck with Henry Hyde and Tom Daschle.

I would think entry to an event this rare would certainly be among the most sought-after tickets of our time. As funny as Jerry Seinfeld's Broadway show, as delicious as a meal at the '21' Club, and almost as sexually charged as the hit Nicole Kidman play "The Blue Room," certainly it would be something American citizens would rush to witness. We can tell our children where we were when Princess Diana died and how we felt when Mark McGwire slammed his record-breaking home run, but not what was running through our minds when the most powerful man in the world was strung up like a piata. Then again, we live in the age of instant information and Bill Clinton is no Andrew Jackson. Citizens no longer have to rush to the capital to learn the big news about the chief executive; we can watch the evening news, listen to the radio, or go on-line. But out of millions of Americans, many more of them - such as tourists from distant states; Generation-Xers, like myself, who are enjoying their midwinter breaks; retirees; and political wonks who consider this the marquee-equivalent of the Rolling Stones concert of the decade - could and should have trekked to Washington. It certainly was an easier journey than it was during the last century.

Perhaps still, we don't care. Who's playing at Carnegie Hall this season?

*Zlati Meyer, a former United Press International reporter, is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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