By David S. Broder
Even as some Clinton loyalists and lawyers denounced independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr for the salacious details he included in referring the case to Congress on Friday for possible impeachment proceedings, new cracks began appearing in White House defenses.
Former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta said in a telephone interview yesterday that the time has come "to stop the legal quibbling about whether he lied about that sexual relationship. It's clear he misled the country. He needs to cooperate with Congress, not engage in the same tactics he has for the last seven months."
In much the same vein, Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) said in a television interview that it is inconsistent for the president to confess to sins, as he did at Friday's White House prayer breakfast, while his lawyers challenge Starr's claim that his earlier statements, denying a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, were false.
"The president's lawyer and the president are now saying two different things," Kerrey told CNN's "Evans, Novak, Hunt & Shields."
"I mean, the lawyers are battling this out, and I think in many ways they're making it more difficult for the people and the people's Congress to make their decision."
Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell, a Democrat and ally of the president, said, "If I were calling signals for the Republicans, I'd have the congressional leaders say, 'What the president did was horrible and reprehensible, but it had nothing to do with his office. So we want a unanimous vote to censure him, and then get on with the business of the country.' " But Rendell added that the partisan lines are so sharp in Washington, "there's probably zero chance of that happening."
Across the country, politicians, pollsters and other political observers reported shock and dismay as the details of the Starr report reached people through saturation media coverage. But the extent of the damage to the president and other Democrats remained uncertain.
"People are very upset," said California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D). "They feel the president did wrong. We fear it could impact turnout here."
After attending three civic events in Republican counties of central Illinois, Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) reported, "It's a mixed bag. People are upset, they're shocked, they're concerned about the future of the country. But there's no majority one way or another on what should come next. There's just sadness for the office of the president and concern about our standing in the world."
Steve Mitchell, an independent pollster in Michigan, said an overnight survey of 400 voters taken for today's Detroit News showed a 10-point drop from last month in both Clinton's job approval and personal favorability scores. But, he said, six in 10 voters still wanted him to finish his term.
There appeared to be growing support among political insiders for the notion that a formal censure of the president was the appropriate measure.
"A censure or reprimand is probably where we're headed," said Panetta, adding that "six or seven months of debate in Congress about possible impeachment will only do that much more damage to the presidency and Congress."
The only way to avoid that, he said, is for GOP leaders of Congress to agree quickly that the charges detailed in the Starr report really come down to "lying about sex" and for the president's lawyers to abandon their efforts to deny that he committed perjury in his deposition in the Paula Jones lawsuit and in his grand jury testimony last month.
"This presidency is never going to be the same," Panetta said, "and that is something [Clinton] is going to have to bear. That is toll enough."
Some veterans of past Republican administrations echoed Panetta's judgment. Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, said, "I don't think people will see this as 'high crimes and misdemeanors,' " the Constitution's description of impeachable offenses. "They'll feel disgusted and think him an unworthy president who violated his oath of office. But I think they'll come down on the side of censure, rather than impeachment."
Linda DiVall, a pollster with many GOP congressional clients, offered a political reason for Republicans' attempting to resolve the situation quickly. Calling Clinton's political position "pathetic," she said future reports from Starr on other matters he has investigated, plus the possibility of an independent counsel examination of Clinton's 1996 campaign finance practices, could force Congress to consider impeachment. But, she said, "Congress has a very high job rating now, and my fear is that the longer it has to deal with this tawdry matter, the more it may be brought down."
One theme in yesterday's reactions was that the details of the Clinton-Lewinsky assignations, though often rumored and the subject for weeks of late-night jokes, had a shock effect when they hit the Internet and television on Friday and the newspapers yesterday.
Merle Black, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta and scholar of Southern politics, said, "I think the more people know about this, the less support there is for the president. His behavior is disgusting. It's unbelievable this happened in the White House."
Black said the Atlanta media were attaching significance to the comments of Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), the only woman in the delegation and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. In her first public remarks since the scandal broke in January, the Associated Press quoted McKinney as saying Friday, "We are all poorer because of the mistake of a man who has squandered a historic opportunity, disgracing himself in the eyes of the world and his family. Bill Clinton's greatest punishment will be that he has to face that reality every morning for the rest of his life."
Other longtime allies of the president vented their ire on Starr. Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, a former state supreme court justice, said, "There was no excuse for the graphic information he put into a report that goes out on the Internet. It was entirely unnecessary to prove his case."
Rendell said what he heard on the streets of his city yesterday morning was "people who are irate that we spent $40 million to investigate Whitewater and we end up with a report that has two references to Whitewater and 548 descriptions of sex."
Robert Borosage, a longtime adviser to Jesse. L. Jackson and other liberal Democrats, said the Starr report "reveals much more of the venom of the prosecutor than the venality of the president. This is an inquisitor exacting his revenge."
"He set out to humiliate the president and he has succeeded," Borosage said. "I can't imagine this being impeachable, but we'll certainly end up with a weakened president. He'll at least be censured."
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company