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Clinton on Trial

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  • By Sharon Waxman
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, January 20, 1999; Page C1

    LOS ANGELES, Jan. 19 – Drone, drone, drone. White House counsel Charles Ruff is on the big-screen TV loudly protesting, "The prosecution is not expected to ignore unfavorable evidence‚. . ." Right, okay, fine. The UCLA student lounge is packed with about 50 people eating lunch. Most are facing the television.

    Only one person is watching.

    Freshman Cruz Giles is staring at the screen, and he looks bewildered. "I just like to watch it because it's history," he says, finishing his Coke. "But to tell you the truth, it's all over my head. I don't understand politics that much."

    No one else in the room seems to care about Ruff. "Most of the public doesn't want [Clinton] to be impeached. So the public doesn't want to watch the trial. They don't even think there should be a trial." So says – no, not a constitutional law expert, not a media pundit – it's Dinaar Sumar, 19, a sophomore at UCLA and a business economics major. She says she won't dignify the trial with her attention.

    "There are more important things the nation should be doing," says David Tuckman, a senior majoring in political science seated just beneath the television screen with his head buried in a book. Tuckman is reading about the government's initial disregard of the AIDS crisis for a public-policy class.

    Officially at least, the impeachment trial of President Clinton is a historic moment. It's the sort of event that has come only once in many generations, one that our children may ask about.

    "What was it like when they put the president on trial?" they will say.

    We may answer, "Dunno. I wasn't paying attention."

    The networks aired the impeachment show today as the presidential defense opened, but last week they yanked the House managers off the air after only 90 minutes. Who could blame them? Only 3.8 million households were watching on CBS, when normally around 7 million households watch "The Young and the Restless," according to Nielsen Media Research. Fewer than 3 million households were watching the live trial on NBC, while usually close to 4.5 million households watch "All My Children." (The networks expected better ratings, however, for tonight's State of the Union speech.)

    CNN has aired 15 hours of live coverage of the impeachment trial so far, with an average audience of 1.3 million households. That's pretty good for CNN, but it's not exactly a large percentage of the electorate. It's not even close to CNN's ratings during the height of the O.J. Simpson trial (2.3 million households) or the Persian Gulf War (3.7 million).

    Politically blase UCLA students were not the only ones who ignored history in the making. Up at Pepperdine University in Malibu, where independent counsel Kenneth Starr still teaches summer sessions, the TV sets were off in the administrative offices. Renovations in the student lounge kept the television there out of commission.

    "I'm not watching it, and I could go next door and watch it," says John Secia, a university spokesman who helps teach a course on presidential politics. "I'm not watching it because I'm fed up with it. I'm not watching it because --I think the general public feels this way – this has gone on too long."

    Oh – that again. That pesky two-thirds of the country that wants Congress to punish Clinton without kicking him out of office. Well, too bad for them.

    Over at the Rand Corp., a nonpartisan think tank based in Santa Monica, a few people were listening to the trial on the radio. This is as enthusiastic as it gets outside the Beltway: Sure, there's a low-level awareness of the trial, but under their breath, people seem to say --it's not exactly Watergate.

    "Regardless of their view of the merits of the case, the hallmark of discussions I've had with friends about this is precisely this sense of numbness in society about the proceedings," commiserates Ian Lesser, a senior international policy analyst. "This is a grave event that is going forward without much passion about it among the public."

    Lesser served on the staff of the National Security Council in Clinton's first administration, but even he is only marginally following events. "At the end of the day, there is this sense that it isn't serious, that it's a political undertaking," he adds.

    If the analysts over at the right-leaning Reason Foundation, just a few miles away in West Los Angeles, see things differently, they're also not that wrapped up in the impeachment process.

    "I almost completely ignored it until the trial started," says Adrian Moore, director of economic studies. "But all this talk about the rule of law --that's interesting." He's been listening to Ruff on the radio.

    "Generally it's an issue that's on our radar," insists George Passantino, a spokesman for the foundation, guiding a reporter on a tour through the library. The big television set next to the conference table, however, is off.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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