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A Pale Ghost of Scandals Past



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  • Full Coverage: Clinton Accused

  • By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, December 3, 1998; Page D01

    Peter King, a Republican congressman from Long Island, is amazed at the lack of drama surrounding next week's vote on impeachment.

    "I felt more tension in the weeks leading up to the NAFTA vote," he says.

    Keith Olbermann, who ends 318 days of "White House in Crisis" coverage tomorrow, calls the House proceedings "the equivalent of a ball club that gets eliminated from the pennant race and is playing out the season. There'll be no post-season, no championship, no guys pouring champagne on each other's heads. The fervor that has marked this thing has just dried out completely."

    John Dean, the star witness of Watergate, finds the current atmosphere tepid compared with the fall of 1973. "There was a sense of fear in the air," he says. "When Nixon fired Archibald Cox, it really sent a shudder through the city the likes of which only we old-timers remember. They thought this man really might do something troubling. You were talking about wiretaps, you were talking about break-ins, you were talking about dirty tricks, you were talking about enemies. That was frightening. This is lying about sex. It's not any great mystery for people to comprehend."

    By any conventional definition, what is about to unfold in the grand marble confines of Capitol Hill is historic. The House Judiciary Committee is expected to approve one or more articles of impeachment against President Clinton, forcing the full House to decide whether to send the case to a Senate trial presided over by the chief justice of the United States. Only two other presidents have faced such a political death sentence.

    And yet . . . and yet . . . journalists, lawmakers and analysts describe a pervasive sense of boredom, of anticlimax, of partisan politics as usual. They cast the drama as Impeachment Lite, a '90s soap opera that has annoyed the vast majority of Americans -- particularly as the House probe has degenerated into an all-out food fight.

    Compelling morality tales produce memorable heroes and villains. But no one in this constitutional showdown looks good -- not the president, not the prosecutor, not the president's girlfriend, not the girlfriend's scheming friend, not the brawling lawmakers and not the hordes of journalists.

    Careers were made during the Watergate probe that led to Richard Nixon's resignation. But it's hard to think of a single lawmaker in the Monica era who has emerged, in Sam Ervin fashion, with his stature enhanced. In the mid-'70s, Woodward and Bernstein were glamorized by the celluloid portrayal of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. But the only journalists getting a boost this time around are Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, who traded yuks with David Letterman and landed a book contract, and cyber-columnist Matt Drudge, who snagged his own Fox TV show.

    By contrast, the news business has drawn considerable public anger by feasting off the scandal day and night. Reputations have been smudged -- the Wall Street Journal and Dallas Morning News ran embarrassing retractions -- and one reporter, Salon's Jonathan Broder, lost his job for protesting his magazine's foray into Henry Hyde's sex life. No wonder a recent New York magazine headline wailed: "Impeach the Media."

    In the beginning -- back in January -- the Clinton scandal was pure adrenaline. "If there was a crisis," says King, "it was in the first few days, when the only question on TV was, would he last 48 hours or 72 hours or a week?"

    Now things have slowed to the point that NBC's Lisa Myers, who broke many of the stories about just what Bill Clinton did with Monica Lewinsky, including the infamous cigar episode, spent part of this week on a General Accounting Office report about the Internal Revenue Service.

    "Quite frankly, the election took all the steam out of this story," she says. "There'd be much more drama had the committee not just dumped everything out there initially. It takes a major new piece of information to put something on the air. It's not like the days when every factoid was of interest."

    Myers places much of the blame on the president and his people: "The White House strategy has worked. They stonewalled and dragged this out and then complained how long it's taking. The American people are really sick of it."

    And they're not the only ones. "All of us are as sick of having to cover this story as the public tells us it's sick of listening to us," says Sam Donaldson, who's done his share of prognosticating.

    "Of course this lacks drama," says ABC's White House correspondent. "I was in the room on July 27, 1974, when at 7:03 Peter Rodino told his clerk to call the roll. I can remember the emotion and sense of history I felt." On this morning, he's in his White House cubicle, watching the latest Judiciary Committee slugfest on C-SPAN.

    Donaldson attributes much of the difference to Bill Clinton's soothing personality. "We'll be talking for a long time about his ability to slip through where other mortals would surely fall," Donaldson says. "If this were Nixon, old Tricky Dick, that fox seemed far more evil than this fox."

    Not all of today's journalists played memorable roles during Watergate. As a "very junior reporter" for NBC, John Cochran drew the stakeout duty outside the home of former Nixon honcho John Ehrlichman. Tired of being ignored day after day, he asked Ehrlichman one morning: "How's your crabgrass?" -- and the footage left him red-faced when it was replayed at a Radio & Television Correspondents' Association dinner.

    Still, says Cochran, "I was thrilled to be in the midst of what was a huge story."

    And now? "It's not a story most reporters have felt good about covering," the ABC correspondent says. "This is to some degree about sex, and the Nixon scandal was about issues that people felt better about covering."

    This feeling -- the gravitas question -- keeps coming up in conversation. In the penultimate Nixon tape, the president ordered the CIA to block an FBI investigation of the Watergate break-in six days after it happened. In the penultimate Lewinsky tape, she said she wasn't sure the president knew her name after their first few sexual encounters.

    At the Senate Watergate hearings, Howard Baker asked what the president knew and when he knew it. At last month's House Judiciary hearing, chief Republican counsel David Schippers asked independent counsel Kenneth Starr: "You have been given a duty that you did not seek and you've performed that duty to the best of your ability. Is that correct?"

    Of course, the fact that Democrats subjected the prosecutor to a day-long show trial suggests the topsy-turvy nature of the proceedings. Throughout the marathon hearing, no Democrat, not even Clinton's lawyer, challenged Starr's findings about the president having a sordid affair with an intern half his age and lying about it. The president himself says his conduct was "indefensible" -- but not, insists the White House, impeachable.

    "It's not historic," says Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat on the Judiciary panel. "The whole thing is ridiculous, and the American people understand it's ridiculous. The Republican leadership has made a mockery of the Constitution. It's a partisan exercise. Clearly," he admits, "it's just as partisan on the Democratic side."

    At the moment, Wexler is cooking sloppy Joes and trying to prevent his 5-year-old from fingering a sharp knife. Crisis averted, he returns to the nation's crisis by invoking Republicans -- "these are not right-wing lunatics" -- in his Boca Raton district. "They're disgusted," Wexler says. "They care about the economy, they care about trade, they care about business, they care about a thousand different things. The last thing on their list is impeachment. They've tuned out because they've lost total confidence in the process."

    Peter King, who has broken with the GOP to oppose impeachment, is no less critical. "This will obviously be the most important vote I ever cast," he says. "The elected leader of the most powerful democracy in the history of the world is facing an impeachment vote on the House floor for only the second time in history. This is big stuff. It should be more sobering. Twenty or 30 years from now, when the next crisis comes along, people will be quoting us. I don't think we know what we're doing."

    He admits being part of the constant din surrounding the scandal. "I have turned down five national cable TV shows today. Actually, six; I had the Johnnie Cochran show call. Usually I'm a media hog. I sort of contribute to this. If you watch TV all day, every hour is leading up to yet another historic moment. When a historic moment truly happens, it feels like another ex-boyfriend of Monica coming forward. We've become jaded."

    Bob Barr, the Georgia Republican who strongly favors impeachment, says the barrage of media polls showing Clinton riding out the storm has become "a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don't recall back in '73-'74 seeing these constant polls, and that has the sense of numbing the public and turning them off and convincing them that people don't care. So they say, 'Well gee, maybe I shouldn't care.' "

    Barr says the committee is trying to prove that Clinton, in contrast to Nixon, "subtly" abused his office, but the hearings "have gotten bogged down over arguments about the size of the table. I think that is deliberately designed by the Democrats to have people say, 'This is just bickering back and forth. I don't need to watch it.' It's unfortunate."

    The sheer volume of coverage -- the all-Monica cable channels, the barking pundits, the talk-radio arguments, the Internet chatter -- has given this scandal a strange, postmodern feel. No one knows whether viewers would have groaned about Watergate if every bit player, from Rose Mary Woods to Jeb Stuart Magruder, were analyzed and attacked round the clock. News, in those days, was pounded out on manual typewriters.

    Shortly before the 1972 election, Walter Cronkite stunned the nation by devoting 14 minutes of the "CBS Evening News" to explaining the unfolding scandal. Now 14 minutes never goes by without someone on some network prattling on about Lewinsky.

    "I hear all these people telling us what's going to happen and it always amazes me," says John Dean, who has worked the talk-show circuit as the resident graybeard. "You hear the same people again and again, and they all sound like the same person in a different suit."

    And the pulse-taking never stops. Throughout the two-year Watergate saga, says a Media Studies Center report, pollsters asked specific questions about Dean 15 times, and about prosecutors Cox and Leon Jaworski 11 times. In the first 10 months of 1998, there were 1,153 poll questions about Lewinsky and 513 about Starr.

    If impeachment has been downsized, it may be because the press pack is convinced the script holds no more surprises -- that even if the House manages to impeach Clinton, the Senate will never convict him.

    "There's the sense that you already know the outcome," says Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian and commentator. "It makes it seem like an artificial drama. It's almost like we're going through the motions. But there's a deeper reason, one that's part of the whole culture right now. We've become such a spectator society, watching this story come in waves. It's not like people are deeply engaged."

    In Goodwin's view, there is no great ideological struggle in this Beltway battle, no grand Clintonian crusade that divides the nation. "When Andrew Johnson was impeached," she says, "there were huge issues involved, like how you were going to treat blacks after the Civil War, and it riveted the country. Here the stakes are more personal, really more about Clinton and what will happen to him as a person."

    Goodwin, who is toiling on a biography of Lincoln, has little desire to record Clinton's travails for posterity. "Someone writing about his presidency is going to have to deal with so much personal stuff, his relationship with his wife and Monica Lewinsky. It's not the same as LBJ giving a speech to a joint session of Congress and six weeks later the Voting Rights Act is passed. You feel larger when you're writing about those things. Events were larger, people were larger, and you felt bigger in their presence."

    Pat Buchanan, the co-host of CNN's "Crossfire" and a two-time GOP presidential candidate, is one of Clinton's harshest critics. But he says the story peaked when the president, after seven months of denials, admitted the Lewinsky affair on Aug. 17.

    "Most of the passion and fire went out of it," he says. "A lot of the anger on these TV shows is feigned now. The mystery is gone. It's like a Monday night football game when one side has an insurmountable lead, the guys in the press box keep it going while the fans are leaving the stadium.

    "I've been fed up with the thing for months. You've got to do the news -- our ratings used to drop by 50 percent when you get off it -- but this has got that aspect of O.J.: For heaven's sake, get it over with."

    Buchanan, who worked in the Nixon White House through the darkest days of impeachment, says Clinton has survived because of a solid core of pundits who back him on television. "They defend him because they do not want their baby-boomer liberal president to go down in the history books with Richard Milhous Nixon," he says. "We had no support in the media, none."

    The fatigue factor is epitomized by MSNBC's Olbermann, who is abandoning scandal for sports. "One of the sad truths for me is that this is the equivalent of talking about the same ballgame for 300 consecutive days," he says. "Rarely has there been such an abuse of the public's time. There have been eight or nine days of real news, and the rest of it's been fill."

    On that point, there is little dispute. Just ask Stephen Hess, who left Nixon's White House before Watergate erupted.

    "This is basically a sex scandal that happened to a public official. It could have happened in Omaha," says the Brookings Institution scholar. "We've lived with the story for so very long. Not only has this story been around since Jan. 21, the American people almost instantly made up their mind and never changed their mind."

    And Hess's own interest level? "I'm the same as John Q. Public," he says. "I felt I figured out what happened a long time ago -- the president was caught with his pants down."

    Sam Donaldson continues to argue on Sunday mornings that Clinton committed "crimes against the felony code." But he's sounding a bit bruised these days. A Washington Monthly cover story on "how the press made a scandal of itself" disparages Donaldson as a "bullying" fellow who predicted 10 months ago that if the charges were true, Clinton would be toast within days.

    What bothers him most is that part of the press has turned on him. After all, just about everyone in journalism agreed with Donaldson that Nixon had to go. But this story, this impeachment, is different.

    "There are a lot of people in this business I respect and like who clearly feel people like me are nuts to feel the way we do," Donaldson says. "We're coming to the end of this, and it's going to leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth."


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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