By Howard Kurtz
CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson began to read a passage about Monica Lewinsky's navy blue dress when Dan Rather interrupted her.
"This is daytime television, and there are children in the audience," Rather cautioned. Attkisson retreated to euphemisms, saying the stains on the dress "were in essence the president's bodily fluids."
CNN's Candy Crowley was far more explicit as she read from independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report on a computer screen. After warning viewers who are "the least bit squeamish" to tune out, Crowley began: "According to Ms. Lewinsky, the president touched her breasts and genitalia." The words could be seen on the screen.
It was Watergate meets "Lolita," a roller-coaster day of media melodrama in which journalists openly struggled both to absorb Starr's 453-page report and to describe its sexually explicit details. A channel-surfing viewer could watch tag teams of correspondents reading haltingly from sheaves of paper they had just been handed or scrolling up a computer version, mouse in hand. The marathon coverage underscored the immediacy of television but also its limitations in conveying anything more than the highlights of great reams of information.
Seven out of 10 people polled overnight by USA Today said they did not want to know the sexual details of Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky. By yesterday, anyone in a home with electricity had little choice.
For eight months, journalists had reported every leaked tidbit they could glean about the sex-and-lies probe. Now they were finally getting their hands on Starr's findings, a cornucopia of the incredibly lurid and the gravely serious, and were forced to reduce it to sound bites and lead sentences under minute-by-minute pressure.
But the president's team grabbed some precious air time first. At 12:34 p.m., the White House spin machine disgorged a 78-page rebuttal to a report that no one in the White House had yet seen. Suddenly, NBC's David Bloom and CBS's Bob Schieffer and CNN's Wolf Blitzer were on camera, document in hand, describing the administration's preemptive strike.
"The president gave narrow answers to ambiguous questions," Bloom read, referring to Clinton's denial of a "sexual affair" with Lewinsky when he testified in the Paula Jones lawsuit.
Clinton understood the definition of an affair "to be a relationship involving sexual intercourse," Blitzer reported. He said White House lawyers were accusing Starr of trying "to embarrass the president and titillate the public."
"And they go on to ask, 'Where is Whitewater?'‚" said Fox News Channel's Brian Wilson, referring to the report's failure to deal with the first four years of the Starr investigation, which generated so much media attention back in the pre-Lewinsky era.
Punctuating the salacious reports, hour after hour, was footage of Clinton's emotional, soft-voiced admission to religious leaders yesterday morning that "I have sinned," and his apology to Lewinsky and her family.
Even before the Starr report on Clinton and Lewinsky was made public, Fox's Brit Hume said it would reveal that one encounter involved a cigar and that Lewinsky performed oral sex on Clinton "while he was on the phone with members of Congress." Fox anchor Rick Folbaum said all this made him "blush."
Moments later, CNN's John King, citing a "congressional source," said the report "describes phone sex between the president and Monica Lewinsky."
"How sordid does this get?" asked CNN anchor Jeanne Meserve.
At 1:54 p.m., all the major networks switched to Mike McCurry's daily press briefing, where this remarkable exchange took place:
Bill Plante, CBS: "Are you saying he's not seeking any kind of psychological counseling?"
McCurry: "He is seeking pastoral support."
Just after 2 p.m., ABC's Linda Douglass appeared with Rep. James Rogan (R-Calif.), who had the first 38 pages of the report everyone was chasing after.
"What's in it so far, Congressman?" Peter Jennings asked.
"This was just handed to me moments ago," said Rogan, adding that he'd barely reviewed the table of contents.
Minutes later, Fox's Carl Cameron was reading from the report's 11 charges of impeachable offenses. And CBS's Schieffer was skimming and summarizing: "More legal jargon here. I think I can skip through some of this. I'm just going through this as I get it, Dan."
"Take a deep breath," Rather replied.
NBC's Gwen Ifill said the report contained "detail that makes you frown and wrinkle your nose in disgust."
"Incredibly sordid . . . it made me feel sick," attorney Jonathan Turley told NBC's Tom Brokaw, who stayed on the air after the other broadcast networks had bailed out.
If CNN was the most sexually explicit among the networks, CBS seemed the most reticent. Schieffer later paraphrased part of Lewinsky's testimony: "He lifted my sweater and so forth, and they had sex of a kind." At another point Schieffer said: "I'm not going into the details."
Shortly before 5, the networks went live to a news conference by David Kendall, Clinton's lawyer, and White House counsel Charles Ruff. The atmosphere was so taut that NBC's Bloom and ABC's Sam Donaldson kept trying to talk over each other in their aggressive questioning.
"Essentially what you're saying is the president can mislead anyone he wants to as long as he literally doesn't lie," Bloom said.
"That's not what we're saying at all," Kendall replied.
John Harris of The Washington Post, noting that Clinton had originally testified that he didn't remember being alone with Lewinsky, asked: "How can that have been a truthful answer?"
"It's all worked out in our rebuttal," Kendall said.
The minute the session ended, pundits and anchors weighed in with harsh assessments.
"How can this president ever walk in front of another audience without their first thought bubble being of the mental image of the acts described in this report today?" asked MSNBC anchor Brian Williams.
"He will always be stigmatized and stained by this sorry, sorry episode," replied Newsweek's Jonathan Alter.
"The American people watching this, and people around the world watching this, are not fools," declared CNN's Bernard Shaw, referring to the White House argument that Clinton misled the country but did not commit perjury.
"One of the key questions is I hate to be tacky about this . . . whether oral sex is really sex," said Fox's Tony Snow. He added that some of the report "is not fit for broadcast, candidly," but Fox and all the other networks took care of that by relentlessly plugging their Web sites.
A particularly surreal moment unfolded at 6:13 p.m., when a beaming Hillary Rodham Clinton the woman whose husband's infidelities had just been documented before the nation addressed an Irish delegation as if it were just an ordinary day.
By the time the 6:30 network newscasts carried the days' events to a broader audience, the anchors and reporters had had plenty of practice. "Mr. Clinton's presidency may hang in the balance," Jennings said. NBC's Lisa Myers said that even after Clinton began a sexual relationship with the White House intern, "the president still called her Kiddo. She wasn't sure he even knew her name." CBS's Scott Pelley showed Clinton's finger-wagging denial of sexual relations with "that woman" before noting that Starr was accusing the president of "lying again."
Constant promos added to the sense of drama: "Can President Clinton survive? A two-hour 'Dateline' special."
If there was a smidgen of doubt as to how the Lewinsky scandal has shattered the old media boundaries, it was erased early in the morning on "Leeza." The National Enquirer's Mike Walker intoned that Clinton and Lewinsky "played sex games that were bizarre in the extreme." As the day wore on, the fare on the networks wasn't much different.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company