By Howard Kurtz
No sooner had President Clinton finished telling the American people that he had "misled" them about Monica Lewinsky than the journalists began ripping him apart.
"He did not tell the country what that relationship was. . . . He didn't come clean with the country," said ABC's Sam Donaldson.
"The president has been using the White House, White House staff, White House lawyers, to defend this lie," said CBS's Scott Pelley.
"This really is the I-didn't-inhale defense," said Fox's Fred Barnes.
"I'm not sure he has come to terms with how much he has soiled his presidency," Newsweek's Jonathan Alter said on NBC.
In an age of instant analysis, viewers didn't have to wait long to get the media's take on the story that has gripped the news business for seven long months. After days of speculating on what the president would and should say, the prognosticators donned their theater-critic hats after Clinton testified before the grand jury and later described his "personal failure" in a brief televised speech. Strikingly, no one praised the address, even as they acknowledged how tough it must have been to give.
"In Watergate language, it was a modified limited hangout," Bob Woodward of The Washington Post said on "Larry King Live." At almost the same moment, his Watergate partner Carl Bernstein was telling CBS that "the presidency has been diminished by today's events."
Former Clinton aides were split. "I was surprised by the speech," said George Stephanopoulos, now an ABC commentator. "It was much more angry than I expected and it wasn't as contrite as I expected."
But the ubiquitous Lanny Davis, asked by NBC's Tom Brokaw if he felt a "sense of betrayal," said that he felt "relief" and wants "this chapter closed." And former communications director Don Baer told CBS that Clinton had "owned up" to his responsibility.
Others weren't buying. "This was Slick Willie in operation," said Fox's Mort Kondracke. "A heavily lawyered speech where he conceded nothing legally," said ABC's Jeffrey Toobin.
Some anchors asked questions that would have required a bit of mind-reading. "The president and Hillary Clinton, what do they say to each other in the next few days?" NBC's Tom Brokaw asked. Washington Post reporter David Maraniss replied that during their Martha's Vineyard vacation the Clintons would probably spend a lot of time reading separate books.
The nighttime chatter capped a long day of nonstop cable coverage in which countless talking heads fielded questions to which they could not possibly know the answers.
Shortly after 1 p.m., NewsChannel 8 anchor Dave Willingham asked Lanny Davis: "Do you expect the president is changing his testimony right now?"
"I've heard news reports from fairly reliable sources that that's what's likely to occur," said the former White House lawyer.
For all the live shots from the North Lawn and the courthouse, for all the fancy graphics and the bizarre CNN mini-scoreboard ticking off the elapsed minutes of presidential testimony, it was clear throughout the long afternoon that no one in television land knew what was going on. They blanketed Washington like the August humidity Rather, Brokaw, Jennings, cable commentators, legal beagles, pundits and poseurs although they had few facts as Clinton began his grand jury testimony in the secluded confines of the White House Map Room.
That didn't stop 'em.
"The hour is here," Brokaw had intoned at 1 p.m. as the Big Three networks briefly blitzed the airwaves, planting their corporate flags on the climactic day of the Monica Lewinsky saga. Brokaw lamented "this historic and sad day in the republic of the United States." ABC's Peter Jennings tossed to George Stephanopoulos, who said "sources" had told him that his former colleague Paul Begala was helping draft a prime-time speech.
"We'll see you as the trail winds on," CBS's Dan Rather said in signing off.
The turf was soon ceded to the cable outlets for what Fox News Channel billed as "The Showdown." If the workhorse reporters felt as if they were covering a baseball game from outside the stadium, without even the crowd's roar to guide them, they tried hard not to show it.
On MSNBC, Tim Russert unearthed a juicy nugget: White House staffers had started a pool on what word their boss would use to describe his relationship with Lewinsky, the winner being "inappropriate."
By 2 p.m. the only thing we knew for sure was that the Dow was up 86 points.
At 2:50, Fox ran a clip of a finger-wagging Clinton saying: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."
At 3 p.m., Clinton popped up on CNN: "I did not have sexual relations . . ."
The torrent of speculation continued. "How specific do you think [prosecutors] will be with the president?" asked MSNBC anchor Edie Magnus.
Cynthia Alskne, one of the ubiquitous former prosecutors on the air, replied: "I think they are being very specific, to the point of anatomical."
Other politicians, sensing a news vacuum, grabbed some air time. Shortly before 4, the three cable news networks switched to a Des Moines news conference by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who held forth on the still-unfolding testimony. "A lot depends on what the president is saying right now. . . . I hope he's telling the truth," Hatch said.
Wall Street was far from upset; the Dow was up 139.
With so much time to fill, there were blasts from the past. Fox ran a report dubbed "All the President's Women," with sound bites from Gennifer Flowers, Dolly Kyle Browning, Elizabeth Ward Gracen, Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey.
Two figures from previous scandals materialized simultaneously. On MSNBC, Oliver North of Iran-contra fame assailed the president while simultaneously conducting his radio show. "Perjury is a crime, and he ought to be held accountable," North said.
On Fox, Dick Morris, dropped as a Clinton strategist over his relationship with a prostitute, said: "Hillary probably was counseling him not to go further [in admitting improprieties] and probably is annoyed that the president is."
Anchors continued to probe the president's state of mind. "Is he mad at himself?" asked MSNBC's Ed Gordon.
"That's a good question," said David Maraniss.
At 5:02 p.m., NBC's John Palmer appeared in the rain from the White House lawn: "We've learned this that there have been several breaks."
Another CNN flashback, at 5:30: "I did not have sexual relations . . ."
The Dow closed up 149.85.
Fox, at 6:05: "I did not have . . ."
The president finished testifying at 6:25. Five minutes later, Sam Donaldson cited sources in reporting that Clinton "did in fact change his story" and testify to an "inappropriate" relationship with Lewinsky. NBC's Claire Shipman and CNN's Wolf Blitzer followed suit. Fox's David Shuster added that "according to investigative sources," Clinton "did not answer every question posed to him."
At 6:43, Clinton attorney David Kendall emerged outside the South Portico, said the president had testified "truthfully" and hoped this would bring "closure" to the investigation.
Blitzer had already moved on to the forthcoming presidential address: "He will apologize. He will ask the nation for forgiveness."
CBS set the stage for the speech by reminding viewers of Clinton's past. Twelve minutes before the president spoke, the network replayed the "60 Minutes" interview in which he denied having a 12-year affair with Gennifer Flowers. In case anyone missed the point, correspondent Steve Kroft said Clinton had "set a new standard" for evasion.
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