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  • By Michael Powell
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, February 13, 1999; Page C1

    Vermont Public Radio wants you to know it's sorry.

    Very, very sorry.

    They went Monica when they should have gone Verdi. They gave their Green Mountain devotees a three-hour earful of "Lewinsky Speaks!" last Saturday instead of Verdi's opera "Simon Boccanegra."

    "The vitriol was intense," recalls Mark Vogelzang, the station's chastened general manager. "Our opera fans do not take lightly losing their operas. We want to pay attention to our public responsibilities, but a good deal of people are sick to death of this Washington scandal – and they're blaming us."

    For a year now, Washington, that most official of communities, has been absolutely sure that the Nation – no, make that the American People – eventually would care about its scandal. Just as it was absolutely positive that when Monica Lewinsky finally sang her aria – Lo Scandal del Libido – well, who could resist tuning in?

    Most everyone it turns out. No more than 5 to 7 percent of those Americans who turned on their televisions last Saturday tuned in to Monica.

    Instead, it's America that's taught Washington a lesson.

    Pundits & pols, handlers & hondlers hyperventilate for a year about the end of a presidency and . . . America yawns. Cracks a beer, rents an X-rated video, covets its neighbor's wife, lies under oath, obstructs justice and does whatever else it is that Henry Hyde and his 12 Angry Men imagine Americans will do because they've ignored this inside-the-Beltway melodrama.

    "Washington is really different, it's a different country," says Michael Schudson, a professor of communications at the University of California, San Diego. "I go to Ralph's supermarket and nobody – nobody – is talking about this scandal anymore. Washington's likes and dislikes have less and less to do with the rest of the nation."

    This isn't just the impression of a Left Coast lotus eater. The Alabama Republican Party also suffers from scandal ennui.

    "I think this dog's just about lost its legs," says Winton Blount, Alabama's state Republican chairman. "People are sick and tired of it."

    Cut to Mike Hawkins, an elegant Washington limo driver with a natty black overcoat, silk tie and hair pulled back in a ponytail. He's standing alongside his empty limousine on Capitol Hill and he's had it with this sex stuff.

    "Lord, please, this scandal's killing our business," he says. "The lobbyists are staying away until it's over, the restaurants aren't hopping."

    The naivete bugs him, too.

    "They know how it is with adultery." Hawkins's baritone carries the I've-been-there tone of a man who's ferried a few recognizable faces to a few furtive assignations. "If they don't catch you mid-stroke in this town, it didn't happen."

    So what is happening? Have Americans become the shack-up-and-kick-back cosmopolitans of Henry Hyde's nightmares? Are we all becoming French? Are we this close to embracing pate», existentialism and Jerry Lewis?

    Or is the country so sated on Internet stocks, drowning in so much green stuff that no one will pay attention to the death rattle of decency?

    Probably not.

    Talk to people around the country, and they offer a straightforward report card on this scandal: The rhetoric and ethical posturing was overblown, the cliched narratives a pedestrian swamp. And the costumes – Rehnquist's Gilbert and Sullivan stripes come to mind – just seemed silly.

    Herewith, an explanation in four grading columns.

    Predictions. F-minus. In which Cokie and Sam and Chris and Tim and the rest of the Punditocracy get it precisely, exactly wrong.

    Jan. 25, on the set of "ABC This Week" . . .

    Bill Kristol: "He cannot survive, because he's not telling the truth . . ."

    Sam Donaldson: "Mr. Clinton, if he's not telling the truth and the evidence shows that, will resign, perhaps this week."

    George Will: "His presidency, Cokie, today is as dead, deader really, than Woodrow Wilson's was after he had a stroke."

    A little later . . . Cokie Roberts: "Okay. So he is out. So then what happens next?"

    On and on it went, the invocations of the American People coupled with predictions of Clinton's imminent demise. This Town – another expression beloved by the crowd of wealthy pundits, pols, K Street lawyers and upwardly striving scribes – knew that Clinton was careless of sex and the truth, and it didn't approve. As the conceit of This Town is that it's just like everyone else's town – We go to church, just like they do in Duluth! – so it was assumed that America would turn on Clinton.

    But Clinton's job approval ratings kept spiking upward.

    It's so confusing for official Washington, which ever conflates its emotional state with that of America. Schudson recalls when Ronald Reagan replaced that abstemious Jimmy Carter; for This Town, 'twas Morning in America.

    "There was a bipartisan sigh of relief when Reagan came into office," Schudson says. "He sent thank-you notes, he was good face-to-face, and he gave great parties. Plus Congress was being deluged with letters from a conservative constituency that had been ignored for years. So the press dubbed him the 'great communicator' and assumed he was very popular."

    Schudson checked the poll numbers: He found that after two years, Reagan's job/personal approval rating was lower than Carter's after two years.

    "From that point on, I realized that Washington really is a different culture. They work outward from their personal view of politicians and their scandals."

    Rhetoric: D. Or How Not to Win Friends and Influence Senators.

    Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.): "Many [senators] are saying, with a degree of certainty that usually comes only from ignorance, that there's nothing I or any of us can say to you today on the eve of your deliberations to sway your minds."

    And Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fla.): Senators are about to "set a pathetic low standard of integrity."

    And Rep. Hyde (R-Ill.): "I wonder if after this culture war is over . . . if an America will survive that's worth fighting to defend."

    It's a curious method of argument, questioning the honor and IQ of the Senate and the American people. The House managers took to their Senate summations like men with a corner on honor, less to convince than to chastise. And their writerly colleagues on the right joined them, pouring hot type on those Americans who failed to see the necessity of convicting this "shameless, hard-even-to-watch" president.

    "The hard truth is that many Americans are not merely tolerating Mr. Clinton; they are embracing him," William Bennett continues in the Wall Street Journal. "These are unpleasant things to realize."

    Perhaps Republicans missed the lesson of their own Reaganite past: That Americans tend to prefer politicians who celebrate rather than deride them. And they seem less inclined in this post-Cold War world to equate presidential character flaws with fear of nuclear Armageddon – as Richard Nixon's campaign slogan once stated: "Vote like your life depends on it."

    "In the absence of an emergency, Americans look at impeachment as a soap opera," says the Rev. John Neuhaus, a conservative thinker deeply disappointed by the failure to convict Clinton. "But I very much doubt most Americans' ideas about lying and marriage and fidelity are much affected by this year of sleaze."

    Indeed, polls suggest that most Americans remain quite concerned about personal and family morality, but are not inclined to judge others. After a few prurient draughts from Starr's cup, no one wanted much more.

    "Even the evangelical Christians got tired of it," says Jack Pitney, an associate professor at Claremont McKenna College in California who's tracked the Gingrich revolution from birth to the cusp of old age. "To think of the Lewinsky affair is to think of two overweight people having sex and that's an unappealing thought to a lot of people."

    Narrative Writing: D. Statesmen Everywhere, in which the gravity of impeachment and a bipartisan Senate at last forces America to pay heed.

    Like Mother Goose tales for the powerful, Washington offers its denizens a collection of comforting narratives in times of crisis. And impeachment is no different.

    Thus we hear all the talk and words expended on Club Senate: The last bastion of plummy chumminess; The 18th-century call to impeach that so chills the spine of the veteran Washington watchers; the paternal Rehnquist being sworn by the grandfatherly Strom Thurmond, now much celebrated for wandering through the shadow of his 10th decade. His many years spent in vigorous defense of segregation go carefully unremarked upon.

    There is the bipartisan Trent Lott and the bipartisan Tom Daschle. And on and on and so it goes.

    But, until the final day, Republicans and Democrats alike vote with a partisan rigor that would warm the toes of a Tammany Hall sachem.

    "Washington doesn't realize how partisan its culture is, and how it sounds to a larger culture that is less and less defined by party," Schudson notes.

    Eddie Williams of South Carolina sits on a bench in the warm sun of a winter thaw and regards the gleaming Capitol. "I figure they've spent an awful lot of money and politics trying to get a guy who was caught with his pants down." He strokes a gray-flecked beard. "I don't like Clinton but they just keep arguing and it gets real boring real quick."

    Comportment, F. The No-Gloat Zone, in which Clinton wins and the Democrats try not to do handstands.

    "I now declare, in a post-impeachment era, this a gloat-free zone," says presidential spokesman Joe Lockhart.

    Big of him, that.

    In the wash of the impeachment victory, Democrats and their prodigal president keep insisting they won't fire up the party lights. They won't seek retribution. They won't talk about the Republican body count: Gingrich, Livingston, Burton, Chenoweth, Boehner. They won't make fun of big, old lumbering Henry Hyde and those bad hair Republican managers and their Neanderthal politics and their post-impeachment depression . . .


    Then come reports that Attorney General Janet Reno is investigating Kenneth Starr. That Clinton may exact electoral revenge on his congressional inquisitors. That the Democratic back-benchers hoot when House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt advises them to make nice at an upcoming bipartisan retreat.

    The Republicans, too, mutter of revenge. They're already labeling Democrats the Party of Perjury & Obstruction. Gary Bauer readies his Christian shock troops and Steve Forbes gives his ready-to-rumble speeches.

    So maybe This Town just ends up back where it began, one party dumping on another, investigations proliferating, invective flying. Back before the American People made it clear they didn't give a hoot about low-rent presidential sex, lies and DNA tests.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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