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Spectators Getting Sense of History

January 15, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ They waited outside in miserable weather, watched their 15 minutes of infamy and moved on, somehow touched.

``I’m in awe of the building and everything that’s going on,″ said Jim Griffeth of Manchester, Conn., previously unawed by anything in the months and months of the Monica Lewinsky matter.

The few Americans getting a personal glimpse of the Senate impeachment trial are finding that being inside, however briefly _ and regardless whether they even know who’s talking _ drives home the weight of it all, the sense that very old wheels are in motion.

``Right or wrong, to get to this point, it’s serious,″ Greg Bellamy of Wilmington, N.C., said after watching from the public gallery where over 1,000 members of the public have been efficiently rotated in and out each day.

``It’s easy, I think, to get overly callous on the whole deal ... if you just follow it at home,″ said Kurt Gahnberg. The transportation engineer from Seattle brought his wife and 12-year-old twin girls on a business trip and spent 45 minutes shivering outside the Capitol before being ushered into the toasty chamber. ``No matter how you think about the issue, you are watching a piece of history,″ he said.

Scores at a time waited in a damp and then biting wind Friday to get inside, no one taking the offer of a man waving $10 for anyone who would let him cut in line. ``Not for that price,″ commented Monica Hayden of northern Virginia. Pizza was shared.

The sergeant-at-arms office estimated 1,500 people from the public line were seated on the opening day of arguments, Thursday, each group getting 15 minutes. About 15 seats a day were set aside for diplomats, although few of them were taken.

Most people are coming away with a generic congressional gallery pass, in blue, not specific to the occasion. Security officers are suggesting people take it to any post office in town and have it stamped with the date to make it more of an impeachment memento.

But people who manage to get one of the 300 yellow tickets distributed each day by senators’ offices _ three to a senator _ possess a true mark of history. ``Impeachment Trial of the President of the United States,″ the tickets say.

It hasn’t been lost on the crowd that the Senate so far has been proceeding without the raw anger that marked the House debate. ``People on both sides of the aisle are trying to defuse the emotion,″ said Diane Conocchioli of Washington.

Indeed, many came with their children, as if it were suddenly safe to bring out the young.

Parents expressed relief that the case against President Clinton was being made without the graphic details that made his troubles so hard to explain over the last year.

``There was nothing to have to shut their ears about,″ said Peggy Brun of Dayton, Ohio, who came with her husband and two children. She needn’t have worried. Her younger child, 8-year-old David, warmly ensconced in the gallery, fell asleep.

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