07/09/97 - 12:42 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Probe begins with an air of severity

WASHINGTON - At 10:05 a.m. Tuesday, Sen. Fred Thompson pounded his gavel twice. Silence settled on the senators, staff, reporters and spectators in Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building. Nobody was smiling.

The hearings that much of official Washington has anticipated or dreaded for nine months finally began in a chilly wood and marble room.

"Come to order, please," said Thompson, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Governmental Affairs Committee. In a gentle drawl, he described "a plan hatched" by China's government "to pour illegal money into American political campaigns."

Thompson painted an ominous portrait of China's meddling in U.S. politics. He hinted at secret information that could be discussed only behind closed doors. He made headlines at hearings some thought would be short on news.

Thompson talked for 15 minutes. The veteran character actor rarely glanced at his notes. His tie was silver and his pocket handkerchief was precisely folded.

He had wanted to hold his hearings in the Senate Caucus Room. That's where the Watergate hearings were held in 1973. Thompson was a GOP counsel during those hearings.

But that room wasn't designed to accommodate the six TV cameras aimed at the panel on Tuesday. So Thompson switched to a modern room in the newest congressional office building. It's lined with skyboxes and has niches for TV and still cameras. Red curtains fall in perfect pleats from the committee's curved table.

Congressional hearings are often sparsely attended. Sometimes only one member is there to question witnesses. But all 15 men and one woman on this panel were in their seats on Tuesday. All 16 wore dark suits and somber expressions.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., admonished his colleagues not to let the hearings become a "headline hunt." But his request came too late.

The committee's top-ranking Democrat, Ohio Sen. John Glenn, spoke after Thompson.

The former astronaut, 75, read his text carefully as documents and graphs appeared on the video screens.

As Glenn spoke, Thompson placed his left index finger on his chin. Finally, he shook his head slightly. His wide face creased into a mild scowl.

Glenn saved his best material for the end of his remarks. He revealed that John Huang, the former Democratic National Committee fund-raiser at the center of the controversy, is willing to testify after all.

Thompson, who denies such an ambition but knows these hearings could propel him into a presidential campaign, was upstaged. After Glenn spoke, a dozen reporters rushed out.

Watching from the front row of spectators was Glenn's wife, Annie. Also in the front row were three seats reserved for White House staff. When the hearing began, they were unoccupied. Later, Adam Goldberg, an aide in the counsel's office, sat in one. Behind him was DNC spokesman Steve Langdon. White House special counsel Lanny Davis was on hand, too.

The only thing missing, apparently, was public urgency. At 8:30 a.m., 90 minutes before starting time, only a dozen people were in line. By 9:20 a.m. the number had swelled to about 70. At 9:45 a.m. a line holder in jeans, T-shirt and running shoes, a pack slung over his shoulder, was replaced by his employer - in suit and tie, clutching a leather portfolio.

After the first hour, rows of spectators emptied. Most of the media departed.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the committee must move beyond headlines to reforming the campaign-finance system.

The public will become even more skeptical, he said, "if we just blow into town, rough up a few low-level rustlers and hustlers, point fingers at the other guy but never at ourselves and produce a summer spectacle for the country."

By Judy Keen and Judi Hasson, USA TODAY: Contributing: Jill Lawrence

Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.