Wednesday, May 30, 2001

Grip on power easily loosened

Journalist, sixth-graders witness history

        WASHINGTON The place to be last Thursday, when U.S Sen. Jim Jeffords made the announcement that he was dumping the Republican Party and throwing in with the Democrats, was the Capitol Building.

        And there I was, hanging out in the Capitol Rotunda, soaking in the history and the news and the action and all of it like a big old journalistic sponge.

        There was Orrin Hatch, the starched-collar Republican from Utah, giving interviews to reporters not 10 feet away.

        There was House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, looking a little smug but happy that his fellow Democrats now controlled the chamber down the long hall from his.

        There was Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, hustling through the rotunda with a look that said, firmly but politely, “Get out of my way or get trampled.”

        But I couldn't participate in any of it. I was unable to ask any questions or even file a story — because a sixth-grader had to go to the bathroom.

        I've been to Washington many times over the years, but last week was my first trip as tourist. Make that chaperone. I was along with my daughter's sixth-grade class trip, three days of visiting everything in a town that has lots to visit.

        I'm not complaining about the trip. Heck, it was the best time I ever had in D.C. But it was difficult not to jump in and do a little work on that very historic day when, for the first time ever, a party switch gave a party — in this case the Democrats — control of one of the chambers of Congress.

        The kids knew I was, as one of them put it, “like really interested in the news” that day. They saw me devouring the Washington Post on the bus ride in from our Maryland hotel, oblivious to the tape of Jurassic Park 2 — a movie about as quiet as a Delta 757 flying over Hebron — played on the overhead video monitors on the bus.

        Zach Austin, an amazingly bright sixth-grader, came over to my seat and asked me what it all meant.

        Other than telling him the Democrats just got a power boost, I couldn't tell him much because I was still mulling it over.

        But here's what I'll say to him the next time he's on our street shooting hoops with my daughter:

        All power is fleeting, especially in Washington.

        Just ask Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and anybody else — on the long list — who had power and then lost it, either through an election, their own miscalculations or, in the case of Senate Republicans, defection by one of their own.

        Any D.C. morning can be Act I of a Greek tragedy. On the very day President George W. Bush finds out the Congress is going to pass his $1 trillion-plus tax cut, he discovers his party is losing the Senate.

        Mr. Jeffords, a Vermonter, is officially becoming an independent but he plans to join the Democratic caucus and on most issues will vote with the Dems.

        This is sort of like what happened to President Bill Clinton in the first House elections after he was elected in 1992. After the health-care fiasco orchestrated by his wife, Hillary Clinton, moderate voters and centrist Democrats defected from Mr. Clinton like scientists fleeing T-Rex in a theme park.

        Because Mr. Clinton was governing with a too-liberal agenda, many Democrats felt, the GOP took control of Congress and lots of Democrats across the country joined the Republican ranks. In Northern Kentucky alone, that list includes Boone County Jailer John Shickel, Boone County Sheriff Mike Helmig and Kenton County Attorney Garry Edmondson.

        And, when two Democrats became Republicans in the Kentucky State Senate last year, the GOP won control of the General Assembly's upper chamber.

        Mr. Jeffords left the GOP because he said Mr. Bush was turning too conservative now that he was in office. Only time will tell if that is true and if it will really matter to voters.

        That's what I think it will mean, Zach. Interesting, but not as juicy as a couple of raptors going after Julianne Moore.

        Patrick Crowley covers Kentucky politics for The Kentucky Enquirer. He can be reached at 578-5581, or by e-mail at


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