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Style Showcase Bennett Angry at '60 Minutes'

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 23, 1998; Page E01

The "60 Minutes" interview with Kathleen Willey was a genuine cultural event, one of those television moments that are discussed and debated long after the final credits. But the CBS program came close to landing another figure in the White House scandal who would have made an equally big splash.

Network sources say independent counsel Kenneth Starr conducted extensive negotiations with "60 Minutes" about appearing on the highly rated show. The talks began after the Monica Lewinksy story broke in late January, a time when Starr was under withering criticism for arranging for Linda Tripp to secretly tape Lewinsky – and apparently was seeking to defend his reputation.

For a sitting prosecutor pursuing a president to grant an extended interview on national television would have been an extraordinary event. But the Starr turn faded, the sources say, when the former judge backed out days before the potential broadcast. A Starr spokeswoman declined to comment.

While "60 Minutes" reaped a ratings bonanza with last weekend's Willey interview, correspondent Ed Bradley has taken some flak for what some see as being too gentle in questioning the former White House volunteer about her account that President Clinton groped her in the Oval Office.

"That's a subjective judgment," said CBS News President Andrew Heyward. "I think Ed did a terrific job under very difficult circumstances. I thought Ed probed where he had to, followed up where he had to, and at the same time exhibited great sensitivity toward her and the subject matter."

Robert Bennett, the Clinton lawyer who appeared on "60 Minutes" to deny Willey's allegations, had a harsher assessment.

"Overall, it was not a fair program," Bennett said. "The best evidence of that would be the exclusion of the main points I made in the tape, which would have put into question the assertions they were making. It was a show with a point of view. I don't think either the president or I got a fair shake."

Replied Heyward: "The implication that there was some terrifically important salient material we left out is false."

The visual contrast was striking. Willey, well coiffed and well lighted, looked at Bradley as she haltingly told her story. Bennett, in a dark room in Washington, looked down as he recited the president's defense. CBS asked Bennett to look to the side, not into the camera, so it would appear he was talking to Bradley in New York instead of appearing by satellite.

"It would have been better to say that Bennett was in Washington," Heyward conceded. "There was certainly no attempt to deceive. . . . Because he kept looking down, he came out less credible in the vocabulary of television than Kathleen Willey, who was looking right at Ed."

Another crucial difference: Willey had nearly half an hour of air time. Bennett, whose taped interview lasted 45 minutes, appeared for 3½.

"People tend to confuse balance and fairness," Heyward said. "I don't think fairness is necessarily judged by the amount of time."

Bennett suggests that the program deliberately made him look bad. While CBS staffers say he asked to be framed from the chest up so no one could see his notes, Bennett said he kept his notes at his side and simply wasn't sure where to look.

"I'm troubled that the two or three minutes they used are those when I was looking down, and I'm sorry nobody interrupted to say anything," he said. "It was very difficult in that room because I had nobody in there with me, no point of reference."

Bennett initially declined to appear on "60 Minutes" when the program wanted to ask him about Willey's contention that he pressured her by suggesting that she find a criminal lawyer. But White House officials later decided to offer Bennett as a spokesman to rebut Willey, and he asked to be interviewed live – a request that was denied.

"We don't allow our sources to dictate the conditions," Heyward said. Bennett taped his interview the night before the broadcast, two days after Willey's session with Bradley.

Starr's deputies brought Willey to testify before the grand jury investigating the Lewinsky matter last month. A CBS producer had been pursuing an interview with Willey for months, but suddenly, in the week before the March 15 broadcast, she agreed to the taping.

Even some CBS staffers say privately that Bradley should have pressed Willey on whether she continued to be friendly toward Clinton after the alleged 1993 incident and whether she was seeking to profit financially from her story. But they note that White House officials had been sitting on a batch of friendly letters that Willey had written Clinton – and released them the day after the broadcast in an attempt to tarnish her credibility.

CBS officials also say they didn't know that Willey was pursuing a book deal. And they say they tried unsuccessfully to interview Julie Hiatt Steele, a longtime Willey friend who has contradicted her account.

What about the lingering questions? CBS spokesman Kevin Tedesco said "60 Minutes" invited Willey back for last night's show "to have her explain some of the things the White House has brought up since the broadcast." She declined the encore.

The Big-A Question
The striking spectacle of Dan Quayle declaring on national television that he'd never had an affair may be an ominous sign of a new political atmosphere.

Suddenly, the question hangs in the air: Is the Monica/Paula/ Kathleen story a temporary aberration that has gripped journalism like a 48-hour fever, or has it permanently altered the media landscape?

The former vice president's preemptive assurance of marital fidelity last weekend on "Meet the Press" – even though Washington Post columnist David Broder never directly asked him the question – suggests that politicians are preparing for a new age of inquisition. Will all candidates for Congress or mayor or dogcatcher have to take a never-fooled-around pledge during interviews?

It's worth remembering how reticent the media once were to delve into the sexual conduct of public figures. When then-Post reporter Paul Taylor asked presidential candidate Gary Hart in 1987 if he'd ever committed adultery, press people reacted with a collective gasp. Now, when reporters ask White House spokesman Mike McCurry on camera whether Clinton engaged in sexual intercourse or oral sex with Lewinsky, no one bats an eye.

Slow News Week
"Brooklyn Dodges Bullets" – the New York Post on a week in which there were no murders in Brooklyn.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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