For Political Pros, the Moment Was a Dud
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 22, 1998; Page A19
Despite the big buildup and suspense, President Clinton's videotaped testimony holds neither huge positives nor big negatives, politicians say.
Billed in advance as a potential political earthquake, President Clinton's videotaped testimony before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's grand jury hit Washington yesterday with only a fraction of the force Democrats had feared and Republicans had anticipated.
Democrats across the country saw a president more sympathetic and reasonable than they had been led to expect, while Republicans here and in key states saw an evasive and occasionally combative chief executive splitting legal hairs over the definition of sex. But in the end, neither side saw the four hours of testimony as a decisive moment in the investigation that has consumed the country since last January.
Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R) summed up the overall effect of the event that brought official Washington to a standstill this way in a statement: "I don't expect a meaningful impact on the public's overall impression of the president or the process that's underway. Based on the expectations built up by both sides, the broadcast failed to register on the Richter scale."
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who heads the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said the video is likely to reinforce people's attitudes but not change many minds. "Everything we heard today we already knew," she said. "His responses were less angry than we were led to believe."
Democrats and Republicans around the country appeared more willing to offer their assessments of the videotape than were politicians on Capitol Hill. Many members of the House and Senate did not watch the videotape as it was being aired by the major networks yesterday morning, and even some of those who did appeared hesitant to rush to judgment before they had an idea of where their constituents were heading.
There was an obvious sense of relief among some Democrats that the release of Clinton's testimony had not produced another moment of devastation for the president -- or for them as they look to the midterm elections. But at the same time, there was no indication that the airing of the videotape had any effect on slowing the momentum that has been building for a formal impeachment inquiry in the House Judiciary Committee.
Democrats were generally buoyed by the video, assessing it as far less damaging than expected. Some said the release of the testimony threatens to make congressional Republicans look excessively partisan. But few said they thought it would do much to brighten an increasingly gloomy outlook for Democrats in November.
Tad Devine, who worked in both the Walter F. Mondale and Michael S. Dukakis presidential campaigns, said that "Clinton looked under control. This may be a strange situation where the expectations for an event collide with the reality of what does happen with an event. This does not add any fuel to the fire, and instead, it works in the other direction."
"I expected a lot worse," said Dane Strother, a Democratic media strategist. "I saw a man who was really anguished, really embarrassed and who wanted to be out of the room."
Karl Struble, a Democratic media consultant who is not particularly close to the White House, said Clinton appeared sometimes to be remorseful, sometimes resentful. "Those are two things that make him look far less sinister than Ken Starr has portrayed him," Struble said.
He said Clinton should tackle Republican critics head-on by testifying before the Judiciary Committee. "He'll do the same thing Ollie North did," he said, referring to the highly successful appearance of Lt. Col. Oliver L. North before the congressional Iran-contra committee.
But not all Democrats saw Clinton's testimony so positively. "I just think it brings back visions of Slick Willie," said Brian Lunde, a Democratic strategist. While the details of the testimony were well known, he said, the release of the videotape gave Clinton's critics a chance to put it before the public again. "It's the drumbeat that won't stop," he said.
Republicans were more conflicted. None said the video added significantly to the case against Clinton. Some argued that it will serve to push Clinton deeper into the quicksand, while others were strikingly critical of the video, arguing that Clinton comes out way ahead.
"He seemed to be very evasive and very legalistic in how he was couching his answers behind some nebulous definitions," said Brent Siegrist, GOP leader of the Iowa House. "I know some people said he was being badgered, [but] I didn't feel that way. I felt he was being badgered because he was being evasive. I viewed it as more negative for the president."
Tom Korologos, who worked for President Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate scandal and who has become a specialist in congressional confirmation hearings, called the testimony a home run for Clinton. "I thought he did a masterful job," Korologos said.
Georgia-based Republican pollster Whit Ayres said: "My general reaction was that the president was cooler for the most part than I expected, although he looked positively ridiculous trying to make the argument that Monica Lewinsky had had sex with him but that he had not had sex with her."
Republicans critical of the president said the American people should not lose focus on the question of whether Clinton lied about his relationship with Lewinsky. "The lasting image for most people will be of their president not willing to give a direct answer to a question," said Dan Schnur, a California-based Republican strategist.
Most strategists who are working on races around the country said it was too early to know whether the airing of Clinton's testimony itself would have any effect on the November elections, beyond the impact already felt by the release of Starr's report and the negative reaction to Clinton's Aug. 17 nationally televised speech to the nation.
The biggest fear among Democrats is that Clinton's problems will depress Democratic turnout in November. Democratic strategists said they doubted that the relief many in their party felt after watching the testimony yesterday would translate into higher turnout.
Referring to the nervousness of many elected Democrats, one strategist who asked not to be named said, "It might calm things down but I don't think it will change their situation. The only thing that will help them is if it goes away."
Most Republican strategists, however, said GOP candidates would be foolish to make use of the videotape in their campaigns. "I think Republicans ought to just step out of the way and let the man drive himself off the cliff," said Republican consultant Jay Smith. "He's doing a great job of imploding on his own."
Strategists in both parties, however, said the release of still more material from Starr's investigation will only add to a sense of weariness on the part of most Americans. "People in real America have already formulated their opinion," said Cino. "They want to get this over with."
Staff writers Thomas B. Edsall and Terry M. Neal and researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company