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The Buzz Around Town

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 23, 1998; Page D01

You know it's a huge day, a bear of a story, even a piece of history in the making, when someone sits down to lunch with news that the Unabomber has pleaded guilty and the conversation returns immediately to the president's impulses.

On the day the president of the United States, a young woman, all manner of salacious stories and even impeachment were tangled in a nationwide frenzy of gossip, no other topic stood a chance, especially in the federal city.

With the eruption over allegations that the president had a sexual affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, there was no more talk about the End of News, no more academics wondering whether Americans would ever again get engaged in things political. A boring presidency, an uninspired Congress, stultifying rhetoric – all blown away with a single allegation. The capital is electric again.

Among the president's loyalists, there was bitterness. "I feel betrayed as a supporter," says Jeff Itell, publisher of D.C. Story, an online journal on District affairs. "There's a lot of doom and gloom. The thing with Clinton is, everyone knows he's been doing stuff, and he doesn't get caught. In America, you need to get your comeuppance. Especially betrayed are the baby boomers: They all want 21-year-old interns, too, but they know not to touch them."

At liberal institutions, a pall set in. At People for the American Way, workers got an e-mail from the boss instructing them not to contribute to the rumor-mongering, and the honchos were talking about scrapping a planned radio campaign in support of the president's push to get his judicial nominees confirmed by Congress.

For Washington veterans, there was a familiar feeling about this day, a stomach-flipping sense of de»ja¼ vu, a realization that even in this era of cheap scandals and easy outrage, some events have the power to halt a nation in its tracks.

"The atmosphere, it changes, and you can measure the severity of the problem and the inner dynamics by atmosphere, by the sound of a voice," says former Nixon aide and power lawyer Leonard Garment. "The president's voice – I heard that hoarse voice, it wasn't a tired voice, it was an extremely anxious voice."

Garment stepped into the Fox News studios to do an interview, and "I had the sense of a beginning of a death watch for the first time in all these years, in all this to-ing and fro-ing in the Clinton scandal drama. All the TV sets were on. Everybody was standing up, nobody was sitting. It was sort of like going into the last quarter of the Super Bowl. A sense of real drama and not make-believe."

Bulletins flew across the wire services all day. "CLINTON-SEX-JORDAN" was one header, and that wrapped up the talk from K Street to Mount Pleasant. Other news just didn't matter: The suits at AT&T saw an opening and let out word they would be laying off 15,000 workers. Who would notice?

Office workers spent so much time trying to log on to the latest rumors from the Drudge Report or call up Monica Lewinsky's purported Web site that computers locked up all over town. On the radio, no joke was too coarse. Don Imus's gang sang impeachment songs. A very young person could, in a single morning of dial-spinning, learn every known euphemism for oral sex.

In newsrooms around the city, editors and reporters swapped story lines with an excitement seen only in wartime and at the peak of a scandal. If there was some guilty pleasure in pondering how sexually explicit their stories could be, there was also, for many journalists, a creeping sense that this could be a story of ultimate solemnity.

"One young guy on the staff here was crushed," said Charles Lane, editor of the New Republic. "He'd just written a serious piece about how Clinton was finally putting it together, and then this thing breaks." The magazine's cover story this week shows Clinton merrily running along, with the headline "The Right Track?"

Lane said there was no other topic in his office this day. "It's all about how much proof would you personally require before you believe it?" he said. "This could all be phony. But if he can't contain this over the next seven days, then it cripples him for months, at least. And everything is put into play now. Respectable newspapers can smuggle in virtually anything now, under the rubric of 'relevant to the investigation.'‚"

There was gloating. "It looks to me like Bill Clinton is going to be revealed as what my readers have long known him to be – an ithyphallic liar. Which means he's a sex maniac," said R. Emmett Tyrrell, publisher of the American Spectator and author of the Clinton-bashing books "Boy Clinton" and "The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton." "I've been right for five years. The Packwood of Pennsylvania Avenue is finally stripped bare."

And there was nervous laughter. At the Omni Shoreham hotel, Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, introduced Vice President Gore to her organization's 25th-anniversary lunch crowd by noting that Gore had "taken time out from a very busy day. . . . Arafat is in town, Netanyahu is in town – and a few other things." The crowd burst into knowing laughter. Nothing more was said.

There was no such polite reserve at watering holes and even hospital hallways, where people kept an eye on the all-news channels even as they created scenarios and dissected presidential statements.

"Did he or did he not?" PR man Charlie Brotman wondered. "Every time you pick up the phone, it's 'Well, what do you think?' My view? Men are men, women are women – we saw that with the Kennedy situation. But I'd like to believe he didn't do it."

Brotman's colleague, David Schwab, lamented the dominating power of the Clinton story. "It definitely affects our business, because as we are trying to push stories, between President Clinton and Chris Webber, nobody is paying much attention," he said.

Office faxes clogged with the kind of gags even the late-night TV shows might find too risque. Many offices received a faxed invitation to a "Clinton White House Intern Reunion/Don't Tell and Don't Tape Party Featuring Free Advice From Vernon, Referrals for Better Administration Jobs, and Sample Revlon Products."

At Fran O'Brien's Steak House on 16th Street NW, the owner and namesake worked the door, telling his bartender, Joe Clemments: "That Clinton thing is a bombshell, huh? Everybody's talkin' about it. What else is gonna happen? They hear a pattern. Definitely been on people's minds all day. This city, it's so close to it."

Co-owner Hal Koster piped in: "I'm a Republican, and if you're going to impeach him, you should do it for something worthwhile. I don't know a man in the world, if he was messing around on his wife, who wouldn't lie about it."

From far across the continent, former New Republic editor Michael Kinsley, in exile in the other Washington running an online magazine, could not quite bring himself to say he wished he were back in town. But he clearly could not believe he was on the wrong coast, with people who just do not understand.

"Yesterday, at the health club, no one was talking about it, which just amazed me," Kinsley said. But some events break through even to apolitical West Coasters. "The big TV in the locker room that had ESPN on yesterday, today had CNN."

Outside the politics-law-PR-media vortex, the story had a quieter, sadder tone, leaving an already cynical populace with ever more confirmation that the world just ain't what it used to be.

Along Main Street in Ellicott City, a quaint collection of stone and clapboard shops, patrons and proprietors greeted the allegations with a jaundiced yawn. It was, they said, a case of reporters indulging their appetite for prurient headlines. American politics, they said, has become so rife with scandal that infidelity, deceit and even subornation of perjury have lost any power to shock.

"Yeah, and he didn't inhale, right?" said John Kerr, a 40-year-old construction worker from New Windsor, Md., recalling a Clinton denial of yore.

But Kerr said punishing Clinton for an alleged affair and attempt to cover his tracks smacked of hypocrisy. "This all goes back to Nixon, one of the best presidents we've ever had, ruined because he got caught doing something everybody does," he said, sipping a beer at the Judge's Bench saloon. "I couldn't care less about Clinton. But I hate it when hypocrites stir up dirt."

Hair stylist Eddie Webb said his clients at the Merle Norman salon on L Street NW believe the news media are out to get the president. "I mean, who cares?" Webb said. "Everybody makes mistakes, everybody has a personal life. . . . Bottom line, if his wife is not complaining about it, then how come everybody else is? Hel-lo."

„In Southeast, at the Players Lounge, co-owner Georgene Thompson's customers made their disdain for the situation plain. Whenever updates about the unfolding investigation appeared on TV, patrons asked that the channel be changed.

Outside the White House, two women became instant pals as they stood in the late-afternoon cold peering through the fence at the bright lights and throng of television crews on the West Lawn.

"I'm exhausted thinking about the morals of our politicians, and I wish we could just get back to the business of the nation," said Jan Girando, 51, in town from Kansas City, Mo., for a greeting card convention.

"I don't know if Clinton's telling the truth or not, but this is going to affect him for a long time," said Fatu, a 25-year-old nurse from Virginia who would give only her first name. "I feel sorry for his wife. It must affect her very much."

"And his daughter!" Girando added. "Nobody wins in these things."

At American University, the notion that a mere intern could threaten the presidency struck home. "I'm really upset with this girl," said Lavinia Oancea, 18, a freshman, speaking of former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. "It will ruin the future of all interns. I don't believe it's true. I think she's being paid by either the Republican Party or the religious right."

At Manassas Mall, Janna Smith, 47, of Rappahannock County, suggested that the president should be checked for a possible anomaly. "I think they should test his testosterone," she said. "Maybe he can't help it. Maybe it's something medical." If Clinton had an affair, she said, that's not such a big deal. But if he told Lewinsky to lie, she said, he should be impeached.

"I think it's ridiculous," said Fred, the shoeshine guy at the Capital Hilton. "It's a damn shame that someone's allowed to do this to the president. They let lesbians get married, and homosexuals can have kids, but he can't have sex? Who gives a damn?"

"There's an incredible feeling about this on campus," said Kuyo mars "Q" Golparvar, president of the Student Government Association at George Washington University. "Even people who never cared about politics before are interested, asking what will happen now, and when was the last time something like this happened."

In Golparvar's class on Arab-Israeli conflict, the teacher discussed how the president's personal affairs had ripped attention from his foreign visitors, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

"The teacher said, 'Well, no one can deny the president of the United States,'‚" Golparvar recalled. "And someone in the class whispered, 'Even if you are a White House intern.' And the whole class broke out into hysterics."

Back at the White House, two sisters from St. Louis here for a meeting of pharmaceutical salespeople laughed as one of them aimed her camera through the high iron fence.

"I don't know what to think of it," admitted Stacey Conrad, 27.

"In my personal opinion, men cheat and lie all the time," said Jacque Conrad, 36, with older-sis authority. "He's no different. That's the beauty of this country! You can be a typical person, and become president."

Staff writers Michael Colton, Ann Gerhart, Dana Hull, Elizabeth Kastor, Tara Mack, Phil McCombs, David Nakamura, Lonnae O'Neal Parker, Roxanne Roberts, Valerie Strauss and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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