Allegations Viewed Seriously Now
By Dale Russakoff
Men and women across the country said they shrugged off the first reports about Lewinsky, inured over the past six years to charges that the president has had extramarital affairs. But as news of an alleged attempt to arrange a cover-up sank in, along with news of Clinton's reported admission to an earlier sexual liaison with Gennifer Flowers -- which he had denied on national television -- they became intensely interested.
"It's not just Zippergate this time," said John Luizzi, a business consultant from Livingston, N.J., emerging with a colleague from the popular Tick Tock Diner in Clifton, N.J. "If she [Lewinsky] is real, he's gone because he tried to obstruct justice. This proves it: He's a bad dude."
"He hoodwinked the American public -- that's all my clients talked about this morning," said his lunch companion, Robert Stalb, a corporate insurance broker from Paramus, N.J., referring to the Flowers report. "Now you don't know which of his denials are true. Was Ron Brown's plane crash really an accident? Did Vince Foster really commit suicide? He betrayed America. He can't be trusted."
Most of dozens of people interviewed by Washington Post reporters across the country today appeared uncertain where the latest charges will or should lead, saying they do not yet know enough of the story. And a significant minority said they do not believe the allegations at all, attributing them to a conspiracy by Clinton's enemies.
Concerns over the Lewinsky story, however, went beyond the allegation of a sexual dalliance, or even of a criminal cover-up. Men and women alike cited her youth -- age 21 at the time she began working in the Clinton White House. "He's got a child almost the same age," said George Singer, a self-described liberal Democrat who runs an oil and gas business in Tulsa, Okla.
They also expressed concern over the allegation that this relationship unfolded during the here and now of Clinton's presidency, rather than during the past of his Arkansas governorship, as in the case of Flowers and the sexual harassment charges made by Paula Jones.
"I think it's ridiculous that the president of the United States sets an example like that for the young people to read about," said Frances Teggeman, a co-owner of Austin Billiard Supplies in the Texas state capital. "How can you respect a president if all this is true?"
But the reactions also revealed deep cynicism toward the political system among men and women in every region of the country. Many of those interviewed said they believe Republicans have orchestrated, if not wholly concocted, the Lewinsky story. If Clinton is guilty of a cover-up, these people said, he will be unusual among public officials only in that he was caught.
"I believe it's all a Republican conspiracy," said Kelly Mattiola of suburban Philadelphia.
"I have a manicuring shop and on top of my television I have a picture of Bill Clinton and me, cheek to cheek," she explained. "I had it done in Washington, D.C. -- somebody did it on the street, superimposing his picture on mine. You can do anything with photographs and tapes. I could take that picture and wave it in front of a TV camera today and I could be the next Paula Jones."
Mattiola said she considers it a waste of time to worry about the morals of people in high public office. "As long as I can afford my car insurance and my health insurance, he can date anyone he wants," she said of Clinton.
If Americans had been on the verge of becoming inured to reports about Clinton's alleged dalliances, many of them shifted course with the latest set of accusations.
An America OnLine "chat room," advertised as a site for discussing the allegations, was jammed with computer users expressing outrage. "Is this Clinton's way of `taking care of children?' " asked Nork44. "Married man with daughter in same house -- give me a break," wrote jk4wk.
But another AOL chat room, specifically advertised as "a place to NOT talk about Clinton," was equally full of Lewinsky-talk. "So why don't we elect Larry Flynt next time?" asked PROCARE HR. "Finally, something is going to stick to this guy. It's about time," wrote WorkGroup.
A Washington Post reporter who gave a prearranged talk on journalism to an audience of 20 stay-at-home mothers at a Tulsa private school was barraged with questions about only one subject -- Clinton and Lewinsky.
Apart from the allegations of cover-up, however, many people appeared flatly disinterested in the private lives of public figures, even the president.
"Here we go again was my exact reaction," said Lars Holm, a paramedic from Philadelphia visiting Manhattan, and the tourist mecca Planet Hollywood. "They made allegations he said aren't true, he made allegations she said aren't true, so it shouldn't have been in the news."
"It staggers me that everybody has spent the whole day talking about the president and what he does with his penis," said Tomilee Edmonson, a dog groomer in Austin. "It has taken away from the pope's visit to Cuba. I would rather have listened to that today."
In Miami, where the papal visit did overshadow news of Clinton and Lewinsky, six of 12 people interviewed at random downtown said they had no opinion on the reports, and most were deeply skeptical that the whole truth ever would be known.
"You'd almost have to have a video of President Clinton shooting someone for something to come of it," said Karri Simpson, 26, a Miami legal secretary having lunch with a friend at the Intercontinental Hotel.
At J.P.'s Bar and Grill in Santa Monica, Calif., politics was no competition for football, as televisions remained resolutely tuned to ESPN and football. "Hormones are hormones," said Frank Alvarez, a former Veterans Administration employee who is between jobs. "Personally I don't hold it against him."
In Chicago, the Bulls and the blast of wintry weather that hit the Midwest this week were far more common topics of conversation in Ike Jones's cab. "I don't think too many people care," Jones said. "I know I don't care."
Polls conducted Wednesday evening -- after the first full day of reports about Lewinsky -- and released yesterday showed most Americans suspect Clinton has had one or more extramarital affairs while in the White House despite his denials. A poll by CNN, USA Today and Gallup found that 7 percent of people thought he "definitely" had an affair with Lewinsky and 47 percent believe he "probably" did -- for a total of 54 percent.
Russakoff reported from Clifton, N.J. Also contributing to this article were staff writers Jon Jeter in Chicago, Donald P. Baker in Miami, Lois Romano in Tulsa, Sue Anne Pressley in Austin and special correspondents Devon Spurgeon in New York and Cassandra Stern in Los Angeles.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company