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Pundits Pulling Their Punches?

Impeachment Debate

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  • By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, December 15, 1998; Page C01

    After President Clinton admitted misleading the country about Monica Lewinsky, a wave of revulsion swept through the media, with more than 140 newspapers and plenty of columnists urging him to resign.

    Less than four months later, many of the same purveyors of elite opinion are staunchly opposing Clinton's impeachment, which, if the Senate voted to convict, would lead to his eviction.

    Are these esteemed media heavies wimping out at the moment of truth? After all, Clinton was never very likely to follow their collective advice and leave town, making resignation a painless solution to champion.

    "This is the hardest issue I've ever had to deal with," said Jane Eisner, editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Some of our readers are still angry at us for calling for him to resign. Some readers are angry at us for not calling for him to be impeached. Not everyone on our board agrees. It's a no-win situation."

    William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, which demands impeachment every week, sees a darker picture: "There's a whole bunch of liberals very critical of Clinton, but around mid-September they looked into the abyss and saw that if Clinton were forced out of office it would be a victory for the right, for the puritans, for the Christians, for the moralists, and they could not abide that. It becomes a question of which side you're on in the culture wars."

    The Inquirer, Des Moines Register, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Seattle Times, Denver Post, San Antonio Express-News and Orlando Sentinel are among the major newspapers that urged the president to call it quits in August -- but now oppose impeachment. The pro-resignation Chicago Tribune has sidestepped the impeachment question. USA Today and the Washington Times renewed their calls yesterday for resignation but did not take a direct position on impeachment.

    Both the New York Times and The Washington Post have harshly assailed the president throughout the Lewinsky imbroglio, while stopping short of urging him to resign. The two papers have endorsed a tough congressional censure and strongly criticized the GOP drive toward an impeachment vote this week. "The Republicans are defining impeachment down," said the Times. The House Judiciary Committee "has failed miserably," said The Post.

    Those who favor resignation but not impeachment have an explanation -- several, actually -- for their apparent inconsistency.

    "When I called for him to resign, I was offended by the immorality of the president having sex with a subordinate," said Lars-Erik Nelson, a columnist for the New York Daily News. "I still think that's worthy of resignation because of the shame. But I don't see that we have to destroy our own Constitution if he doesn't do that. I don't see this rising to the level of treason, bribery or high crimes and misdemeanors. . . . I hope that doesn't seem like too fine a point."

    Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page said he wanted Clinton to quit because he thought his effectiveness was over after the Aug. 17 apology. "I've never been so delighted to be wrong," Page said. "Obviously I underestimated the ineptitude of Clinton's enemies." The Republicans, he said, were "making this a crusade to get Clinton."

    "I felt then, and feel now, that resignation is infinitely preferable to his being impeached. Impeachment is such a trauma for the nation. It tears the nation apart, polarizes people. It's a wrenching experience." While Andrew Johnson's 1868 impeachment was fought over vital questions involving Reconstruction and the South, Page said, "these are such ludicrous issues by comparison."

    But even those at the pinnacle of punditry are hardly unaware that two-thirds of the country has consistently opposed impeachment. "They have been spooked a little bit by the polls and all the criticism of the media elite as being out of touch," Kristol said.

    Several opinion editors acknowledged that public sentiments had influenced their stance.

    "However much we may feel from a high-plane editorial point of view, this is not a view that's shared by the country," said Mindy Cameron, editorial page editor of the Seattle Times. "It was pretty clear to us he lied, but to a lot of people in the country it didn't matter so much to them. . . . We wrestled with that -- this is not unanimous among our editorial board -- and came down for a very harsh censure."

    Eisner said it would be "really foolhardy" to "disregard the public." One reason the Inquirer urged Clinton to step down, she said, "was to spare us this very agony we're going through right now." Still, "our board feels these wrongs just don't warrant impeachment. The bar would be set so low that we're really afraid of the precedent that would be set. The consequences of impeachment, we think, could be very dangerous to the country."

    Said Bob Richter, editorial page editor of the San Antonio Express-News: "We don't feel badly we called on him to resign. But we don't think the country and Congress and you guys in Washington need to go through this ordeal. Nothing else will get done, and we've got Social Security and Medicare going broke."

    Richter said the paper's publisher favored impeachment but was persuaded to go along with editorials advocating censure.

    Some newspapers -- including the Charlotte Observer, Wichita Eagle and Richmond Times-Dispatch ("perhaps the most perfidious president in history") -- have embraced the drive for impeachment. And even those who have blinked at the idea of a Senate trial have continued to criticize Clinton for refusing to admit that he lied under oath. In yesterday's Daily News, Nelson described Clinton as "a reckless sexual predator" and "disgraceful reprobate" whose conduct has been "unconscionable," "reprehensible" and "unforgivable" -- even as he attacked House Republicans for turning him into a sympathetic figure.

    Of course, not everyone in the press is consumed by the prospect of impeachment. The cover of Nelson's paper yesterday was devoted to the opening of Nicole Kidman's new play: "NAKED NICOLE TAKES B'WAY." A box the size of a Post-It Note carried the headline "I Won't Quit, Says Bill."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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