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  • By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, December 11, 1998; Page D01

    Network television has spent the week admonishing viewers that President Clinton really, truly, absolutely might be impeached.

    "The country may not be paying close attention, but . . . the president is one step closer tonight to being impeached," ABC's Peter Jennings said Wednesday. CBS's Dan Rather spoke of "the growing likelihood of actual impeachment by the full House of Representatives."

    NBC's Tim Russert said yesterday that Democratic Judiciary Committee counsel Abbe Lowell was "trying to say, 'Folks, this is really happening.' There was serious discussion of an issue you thought had gone away."

    Anyone glancing at a newspaper or magazine would already know the score, but television executives believe most people are busy Christmas shopping and have tuned out – or that news isn't real until it's piped into America's living rooms. It's as if, at the turn of the millennium, a crisis can't really exist unless television trumpets it as one. Or, alternatively, that viewers are so sick of the Monica Lewinsky saga that they must be persuaded that it has morphed into a major constitutional showdown.

    In attempting to draw them back in, the networks are covering the unfolding drama like a campaign-style horse race – which, in some ways, it is.

    "Scott, what's the read on the nose count right now?" CBS's Dan Rather asked White House correspondent Scott Pelley.

    Pelley said a White House adviser had told him that "if it looks bad for them, the president will start calling members himself."

    "There are five more Republicans needed to stop impeachment," Russert said.

    "Congressional sources on both sides of the aisle tell CNN that if the vote were held today the outcome could hinge on one or two members," said CNN's Bob Franken.

    By last night Rather was declaring that the chances of impeachment "are increasing by the hour."

    The problem for television, which relies on pictures, is that the cajoling of the 30 or so moderate Republicans whose votes will decide Clinton's fate is taking place behind the scenes. And unlike a real campaign, with real voters and 30-second ads and exit polls, it is hard to measure which way these suddenly crucial lawmakers are leaning. That leads to lots of speculation by the correspondents.

    Way off on the horizon is the entity known as "the American people," which seems to have little say in this inside-the-House election. "For some time, that public has been saying no to impeachment," said NBC's Tom Brokaw, invoking a network poll showing that 68 percent of those questioned are against impeaching Clinton.

    Few correspondents have addressed the extraordinary spectacle of one party moving to impeach the other party's president almost solely along partisan lines. CNN legal analyst Greta Van Susteren described the Judiciary hearings as "a partisan proceeding," but otherwise the focus has been on the daily maneuvering.

    "A lot of wavering Republicans . . . say he has to admit that he lied," ABC's Cokie Roberts reported.

    NBC's Gwen Ifill noted "a milder, apologetic tone" by the president's defense team – an apt description when Clinton's lawyers were calling his conduct "reprehensible," "maddening" and "sinful."

    Both parties seem acutely aware of the media coverage. When the Republicans released four draft articles of impeachment late Wednesday, that became the lead story on the network news, bumping the testimony of White House counsel Charles Ruff. When Democratic counsel Lowell yesterday played an excerpt of ABC's Diane Sawyer interviewing independent counsel Kenneth Starr, he created a seamless loop of television covering television becoming part of the story.

    To lend historical resonance, John Dean of Watergate fame was in Washington as an MSNBC analyst to rate Lowell's performance: "He poked all the holes right where they should be poked."

    For all the intonations about the gravity of the situation, CBS, NBC and ABC have not provided live coverage of the president's defense, or yesterday's summations, or even yesterday's videotape of Clinton's deposition in the Paula Jones case. Perhaps network executives were more interested in the food-fight atmosphere surrounding the grilling of independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Or perhaps they have concluded the committee hearings are a charade and the Republicans' vote to impeach a foregone conclusion.

    The Big Three were poised but didn't pull the trigger. "We don't expect anything unexpected," ABC spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said as the hearings began.

    "We determined as we watched the proceedings that it didn't warrant a special report yet," said CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius. "We're ready at any moment to break in."

    Clinton has stuck to an ordinary routine while the media and the committee debate his fitness to remain in office. In a particularly surreal moment on "Today," the president and first lady gave Katie Couric a tour of the White House holiday decorations. She asked about their Christmas shopping and New Year's resolutions and told Hillary Rodham Clinton that she looks "incredible. You're wearing the dress you wore on the cover of Vogue."

    Couric did make a gentle attempt to engage him on the subject of impeachment: "Before we go, you don't want an opportunity to talk about anything else, do you, Mr. President?"

    "Nope," Clinton said.

    Some conservatives have mounted the argument that impeachment is merely a major-league spanking, since the Senate is unlikely to remove Clinton from office. "Impeachment is the punishment," said radio commentator Rush Limbaugh. "Impeachment is the censure. It's then up to the Senate to decide what to do. . . . The censure crowd has got to be made to understand that impeachment is what they want when they say they want punishment."

    Pro-Clinton talking heads have tried to turn that argument on its head. Although Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has said an impeachment trial would last from a few days to three weeks, White House loyalists have raised the specter of a grueling ordeal in the Senate.

    "We could have a three-, four-, five-, six-month trial," Clinton attorney Robert Bennett said on "Larry King Live."

    "This is going to tie the nation up for months," former Democratic congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman said on "Rivera Live."

    On CNBC, dueling nighttime hosts have staked out aggressively opposite views of Clinton's impeachability.

    "Why do they keep going back and saying the president didn't lie?" asked "Hardball" host Chris Matthews. "He doesn't want to admit nothing."

    Geraldo Rivera offered a rosier view of Clinton in his interview with Bob Bennett: "I love him maybe more than you do."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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