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  • By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, February 13, 1999; Page C1

    Sam Donaldson, who returned to his White House post just days before the Monica Lewinsky story broke, says he is relieved that President Clinton's impeachment trial is finally over.

    "I won't miss it," he said. "To let go of it is a joy."

    But the ABC correspondent, who famously predicted that Clinton would be toast within days if the allegations against him were true, is still puzzled by the tepid reaction of most Americans. "I really thought, if you commit felonies in the Oval Office, you have to go. Well, wrong! Not true."

    His colleague in the cramped ABC booth, Ann Compton, says the Clinton saga has not played itself out. "It will never be over," she said. "My prediction is that it ends on Jan. 20, 2001, at 12:01 p.m."

    As the Senate began voting to acquit Clinton yesterday, the network correspondents stood on the gravel stretch along the White House driveway, amid the tangle of lights and cables, waiting for their cues. A stiff wind blew down Donaldson's blue-and-white umbrella. The reporters expressed skepticism at the message conveyed moments earlier by Clinton spokesman Barry Toiv, who said the president was in the residence but not watching the televised proceedings. CNN's Wolf Blitzer sat in a director's chair, marking off the defecting Republicans on a legal pad. Minutes after the twin verdicts, the networks cut to the North Lawn, to a babble of voices describing the moment and Clinton's upcoming Rose Garden comments.

    "You can expect some level of contrition and largely a look at where we go from here, Dan," said CBS's Scott Pelley.

    "A chance for the White House, they hope, to turn a corner in this episode," said NBC's David Bloom.

    "He delayed this matter by eight months by continuing to lie about it," said Fox's Jim Angle.

    "Bill Clinton would be the first to say there are no winners," Donaldson said, adding: "The press is sullied. No Woodward and Bernstein, no heroes here."

    From behind the wrought-iron gates, a bystander shouted: "Shame on the media!"

    The Lewinsky scandal has consumed the fourth estate for nearly 13 months and has transformed the landscape in the process. Most Washington journalists can't quite remember what they did beforehand. Indeed, cable networks, news executives and ordinary reporters are busy making plans for the post-Monica era.

    Nowhere has the impact been greater than in the claustrophobic White House pressroom, the place where every rumor is tracked, every official pronouncement challenged, every hour a potential deadline.

    "Look, it's been an ordeal, especially for the country, but also for us," said Bloom, who misses spending time with his 4-year-old twins. "Everyone wants to get back to their life." Still, he said, "as a journalist you relish these moments, not relishing what the country's going through but the opportunity to be there at a historic time."

    While Clinton called for "reconciliation and renewal" yesterday, there was grumbling in the CBS booth about his continued inaccessibility. There was no photo op this week with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, no press session planned when Clinton visits Mexico on Monday, no full-scale news conference expected until March.

    "There are so many questions this president hasn't answered," said CBS correspondent Mark Knoller. "They're still sensitive about protecting him from our questions."

    The pressroom atmosphere lacked the tension of previous scandal developments, since this was a huge and historic event in which the outcome had been known for weeks. The only debate around town was whether it was over, sort of over or just another chapter ending.

    "I'm not convinced this all goes away, even though everyone's sick of it," said Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, which has crusaded for the president's ouster. "I may be wrong, but I think the Clinton controversy has cut deep, and I don't think it goes away after the vote."

    Newsweek's Howard Fineman sees the action continuing into the next millennium. "The whole Clinton story is going to turn into the Alger Hiss case," he said ominously. "Partisans will be arguing over the years who was really guilty, did Ken Starr overstep his bounds, who among the Republicans screwed up getting Clinton."

    The party may be over for the cable networks, which have covered the case with O.J. Simpson-like intensity. But at MSNBC, widely known as the all-Monica channel, Vice President Erik Sorenson was shedding no tears.

    "I'm ecstatic," he said. "My biggest fear is that the end isn't the end. Please, for MSNBC's sake, let's talk about something else. ABC led with a sex study the other night. Okay, let's talk about dissatisfaction with sex.

    "Because we're so focused on being the network that covers the big story, we got tagged early on with the Clinton-obsession label, and in late summer we were joined by everyone else. Everyone's been completely obsessed with it in all the media."

    In recent months, though, ratings for the NBC-Microsoft venture began to slip. "When it was a whodunit last spring, it was a very good MSNBC story," Sorenson said. "When it became a bipartisan, inside-the-Beltway political battle, it wasn't a good MSNBC story. It didn't play to our strengths. That's not what our brand is all about.

    "As the general public got less and less interested in it, we were trapped by the process of impeachment. We had to cover it, and nothing else could break through and get much attention. The whole I-hate-Clinton/I-love-Clinton debate is really tiresome."

    Frank Sesno, CNN's Washington bureau chief, has the opposite view of the Lewinsky trajectory. "The story was most uncomfortable, most salacious in its early days," he said. "It's ending on a high note, by making history. It went from being about the blue dress to being about the parchment of the Constitution."

    Sesno also sees plenty of permutations in what he calls "the post-impeachment story," but added: "We'll have the air time to get back to some of the things we should be doing, whether it's the new economy or Y2K or Kosovo. The most important thing is to do good journalism. I'm of the belief that they'll watch. If the ratings adjust a little bit, so be it. That's life."

    Brit Hume, Washington managing editor of Fox News, sounds resigned to a ratings dip. "This story has been good to Fox News Channel in general," he said. "This was a story that generated a lot of energy. I do a Washington show, and this was a Washington story of a most fascinating sort. It will leave a void of some kind.

    "But we've tried hard on my broadcast and other broadcasts not to make it all Monica all the time," Hume said. This week, for example, his panelists discussed the death of King Hussein and whether Hillary Rodham Clinton might run for a Senate seat from New York.

    Donaldson, for his part, worries about the media's reputation. "We come out tarnished, and the public hates us," he said.

    What will the gang chat about now on ABC's "This Week"? Kristol offered this menu: "Republicans are in total disarray; conservatives can't decide whether or not they're deeply distrustful of the American people; liberals are uncomfortable defending Clinton; feminism's contradictions have been exposed; the independent counsel law may not be renewed."

    Gloria Borger, a U.S. News & World Report columnist, says the Lewinsky saga has changed her view of the news business. She didn't even know who Matt Drudge was before the scandal broke.

    "I think we're going to start covering the issues again. Social Security looks pretty interesting," she said, laughing.

    "It's been a long year. [Rep.] John Kasich is going to New Hampshire next week, and I've signed up for the press plane. Psychologically, I'm moving on."

    When White House press secretary Joe Lockhart took the podium yesterday, it was clear not that everyone was moving on.

    CBS's Pelley asked whether Clinton felt the impeachment proceedings had been legitimate. Donaldson asked whether Clinton felt unfairly targeted by the investigation. Pelley asked how Clinton could convince Congress that he is trustworthy. Donaldson asked if the president was still in legal jeopardy from Starr. Donaldson also demanded to know why there would be no news conference before March.

    "Don't get too greedy, Sam," Lockhart replied.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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