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N.J. Voters in Favor of Quick Decision

Clinton on Trial

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  • By Dan Balz and David S. Broder
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Monday, January 25, 1999; Page A1

    TEANECK, N.J.—Placed in the position of the 100 senators considering the case of William Jefferson Clinton, the 10 New Jersey residents who gathered here Thursday night were clear about three things.

    Unanimously, they thought their president had lied. All but one thought he had obstructed justice. And most emphatically they said the time has come for the Senate to make a decision and end the impeachment trial.

    "I'm ready for a conclusion and I think many people in the United States are ready for a conclusion," said Ronald Kriegl, 58, an electronics company sales manager. "They've heard it for so many months. What is the conclusion? What are you going to do?"

    The 10 people from New Jersey were not hesitant to give their recommendation. They oppose convicting Clinton and removing him from office. But just as strongly they oppose something that smacks of exoneration, particularly on a party-line vote.

    What they hope will happen is that the Senate will censure the president -- and send him back to work, which they think he can do as well as ever.

    Those invited included four who voted for Clinton in 1996, five who supported Republican Robert J. Dole and one who supported independent Ross Perot. Their views reflect the broader currents of public opinion, but their answers did not fall neatly along party lines.

    They were selected to explore why, even among some Republicans, criticism of Clinton's actions does not translate into his ouster. The two-hour conversation here revealed the ambiguities, emotions and conflicting calculations that lie behind the seemingly unchanging poll numbers.

    A mix of motives, ranging from impatience to see their own concerns about health care, jobs and Social Security addressed, to a fear that Vice President Gore would falter if Clinton were removed, leads them to conclusions, they are ready to admit, that do not always seem logical.

    Presidents are not above the law, they say, and a company executive who did what they believe Clinton has done would be out of a job. There should not be a double standard.

    But impeachment -- as a word and as a process -- is a gun pointed at the nation's head, not just at Clinton's; and the Senate better not pull the trigger or let the president off without punishment.

    The tension between their disdain for Clinton's actions and their reluctance to see him removed burst forth most clearly when they were shown hypothetical headlines about possible outcomes of the Senate proceedings.

    Suppose the Senate fails to convict Clinton -- as they think likely -- and a few days later the headline reads: "Censure Resolution Fails"?

    "That would be bad," said Richard Lutz, 48, who works for the Ridgefield Park, N.J., police department, as a chorus of voices echoed, "Real bad."

    "Throwing him out of office would be way too extreme," Lutz continued, "but we all think he was guilty of lying, and it would be a travesty if nothing happened to him."

    "If nothing is going to happen, why did we go through all this?" asked Helen Aizley, 57, who works with her husband, an accountant.

    The group was shown other headlines of possible developments or outcomes to gauge their reactions to the unfolding events in Washington.

    The prospect of public testimony by Monica S. Lewinsky drew laughter -- but no endorsement -- from the group. A mock headline saying the Senate trial was entering its fourth month drew groans and exhortations for the senators to wrap up their work within two weeks.

    Exoneration along party lines, they said, is possible but bad for the country. "It would disappoint me tremendously. I would be disgusted," Andra McCartney, 39, an administrative assistant for an entertainment company, said, adding, "I don't think he should get nothing. I don't think he should get a slap on the wrist."

    The members of the group were far more comfortable with a headline that said Clinton had been spared in the Senate by just three votes -- accompanied by rising demand for his resignation.

    "I like that because it wasn't strictly along party lines," Aizley said, "and because there's a lot of people out there then that would want him to resign, so it's not like he is the most admired man in the country."

    The group brushed aside as impossible a headline that read: "Clinton Convicted, Leaves Office Today." But when asked how they would feel if, because of something unforeseen, the Senate ended up removing the president, many were surprisingly sanguine.

    "I would say he was punished like anybody else would have been," said Maria Alvarez, 44, of Hackensack, who works for an accounting firm. "That's it. I would accept that. I accept a lot of things."

    But to the majority of the group, censure means closure on a process that has gone on too long. And it has the added virtue, from their point of view, of being something that will cost nothing in Clinton's ability to do his job as president.

    The participants don't buy the assertions that, if he is censured but not removed, Clinton will not have the backbone to get through the next two years. They are certain the man they saw on television Tuesday night delivering the State of the Union Address will have the backbone to finish off his final term.

    "He's very resilient," said Richard Alicchio, 53, of Leonia, an account manager with a computer company.

    "He is able to maintain his composure and focus on what he has to do,". McCartney agreed. "A lot of other people would have crumbled."

    They also expressed few reservations about a censured Clinton's ability to govern. "The American people will bounce back and say it's over, and let's move on," Aizley said. "I don't think he'll have any problem."

    Even the Republicans who tried to remove him would have to bend to the task, they said. "I think there will be a lot of cooperation between the Democrats and Republicans," Kriegl said, "because . . . they both want to get reelected, and they both want to pass things that the population wants."

    By contrast, the prospect of Gore's being elevated to the presidency in the wake of Clinton's removal is scary to them. "What does anybody really know about him?" Alvarez asked.

    Lutz said, "I wouldn't want Al Gore. That's a nightmare."

    Alicchio agreed, saying Gore would be "more like a puppet. He would probably have twice as many advisors telling him what to say, what not to say, what to do for the finishing of the term. And those two years could be very detrimental, because it's going to make the presidency look completely different than what it's been over the years."

    Throughout the discussion, the 10 men and women wrestled with the contradictions in their own views.

    Everyone agreed that lying under oath is a serious offense, and when asked what they thought would happen to them if they were caught lying in a judicial proceeding, Alicchio spoke for others: "I'd be in jail." And they were firm in their belief that politicians should not be held to standards different from those for ordinary people. "Higher," said one member of the group.

    Then why did the majority say Clinton should be censured but not removed? "We're being very practical," Kriegl said, adding that his personal preference would be for Clinton to resign.

    Raymond Abell, 25, who works for a Latin drum company, said, "Whether it's a resignation or if he was impeached, it's almost not worth the trouble because it's going to upset the country."

    But Kriegl broke in: "The country's not upset and the economy is great. The country's not upset. They're tired. That's what they are."

    "It's not one extreme or the other," McCartney said. "I 100 percent think that what he did was wrong. But I just don't think that the penalty fits the crime, not for what the action was that the lie was made off of."

    Denise McNellis, a social worker, said she favors censure but admitted to mixed emotions about whether he should be removed. "We've lived through the Richard Nixon era," she said. "We've lived through the Kennedy assassination." Removing Clinton, she added, would mean "another disrupted presidency. . . . I want him to handle the affairs that we hired him to do."

    Michelle Alston, 24, a nurse's aide at a hospital, was one who said the Senate should stop the trial without even voting on Clinton's guilt. Calling the investigation and impeachment "a big waste of time [and] money," she said, "He did something that he lied about. He should have been straightforward, but he was trying to protect himself and trying to protect his family and he got caught."

    If the president has shown the power to compartmentalize the scandal and his responsibilities, the focus group participants proved equally adept at compartmentalizing their opinions of the president.

    Early in the evening, Anthony Morales, 38, a minister and truant officer, blistered the president's moral fitness for office. "When I look at Clinton, I don't see a president, I see a manipulator, a conniver, a liar."

    And though he was critical of some of Clinton's State of the Union showmanship, he marveled at the performance. "I think he was a prince. I was just overwhelmed."

    Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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