Explicit Details Evoke Anger, Amusement
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 12, 1998; Page A01
The oddest mass political act in the history of American democracy began with an electronic storm, a blizzard of attempts to find the Starr report on the Internet. By late afternoon, the details, the explicit stuff the sex was everywhere: in solemn readings on television, in breathless recitations on talk radio, in gossip that sizzled across workplaces and shopping malls.
Within an hour of the report's release, thanks to the Internet, the nation began history's first simultaneous reading of smut. In coffee shops and exercise gyms, at soccer practices and cybercafes, Americans expressed exasperation, amusement, sorrow and anger as they scanned the voluminous text, stunned by its explicit recitation of the president's alleged sexual behavior.
It was an afternoon of giggles, whistles, and sighs of disgust. But was this the nervous laughter of a nation writhing under an avalanche of sexual detail, or a first, emotional exhalation at the beginning of a constitutional crisis?
"I'm embarrassed just looking at these words," said Cindy Kelly, a New York receptionist who, like nearly everyone else in her office on a lazy Friday afternoon, read the report and immediately copied choice phrases to e-mail to her friends.
"Lying under oath is a big deal," said Paul Terpak, 42, a Fairfax lawyer who interrupted his workout at Gold's Gym to watch TV accounts of the prosecution's case against the president. Terpak wasn't sure whether President Clinton should be removed from office or punished some other way. "If you can't believe someone under oath, the whole system will fail. Whatever deal he had with Hillary, he didn't have with the American people. I know that my wife wouldn't make a deal like that with me."
For most of this year, Americans confounded the pundits by insisting that their support of the president was undiminished by increasingly persuasive accounts of his sexual misdeeds. Yet many Washington insiders, Republicans and Democrats alike, persisted in their belief that when finally confronted with what Clinton had done, the American public would turn on their president with a vengeance.
But the first reactions to the report and its startlingly graphic descriptions of the relationship between Clinton and former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky were of a different sort of revulsion, a visceral feeling that, while hardly anyone could stop reading, this was a body of material that citizens simply weren't supposed to see.
The Barber Shop
The explicit details were cascading from the TV set blaring at Preston's Barber Shop on Georgia Avenue NW in the District.
". . . the president's DNA. ... " said the announcer.
"Oh no!" shuddered barber Melvin Edler, 75, completing a trim in the chair on the right.
". . . sex while on the telephone with three U.S. congressmen. ... "
"Come on!" said barber Jason Lewis, 30, at the center chair, who had shaken hands with Clinton and wished him luck when he visited the neighborhood shortly after he won election in 1992.
"I don't believe that," chimed in Edler, wincing and shaking his head.
This stuff was over the top even for these barbers, men who thought that everything a person could ever hear had been said at some time in their 36-year-old shop. But this about the president! well, it shocked even them.
They absorbed the shock, but just as quickly shrugged it off.
To them, and to a dozen other people interviewed along the avenue, Clinton was still an admirable president who ought not be driven out of office over the Lewinsky affair. They pointed to a strong economy, successful foreign policy, the generally solid America in the late 1990s, and they credited Clinton.
The barbers referred frequently to biblical themes. Lewis said Americans, before judging Clinton, should look in the mirror and question whether they are qualified to cast the first stone.
The Senior Center
At the Miami Beach Senior Center, the Friday Singalong had just concluded with "Goody Goody." The center's director, who doesn't usually tolerate TV watching, turned on the big set in the activity room so the seniors could follow the unfolding events in Washington. The volume was way up, but those with strong opinions made their voices heard over the din.
"It's a dirty trick, a dirty little political trick," said Winnie Spintig, who wouldn't give her age. "Somebody is behind it, someone wants to get him out of office. He is a good president. I had tears in my eyes when he spoke this morning of having his spirit broken. He has a good heart." She gave her white pageboy a flip before leaving in disgust.
On ordinary Fridays, her friend, Juliet Rothenberg, plays the piano while Winnie sings. "How many others have done the same thing?" Rothenberg wondered. "This Ken Starr he is doing too much. Now the president, his defenses are down, he has nothing else to do but apologize. But there is no cause for impeachment. If he could, I would bet that he would be reelected."
Anna Kuferschmidt, 95, disagreed loudly. Sure, she said, "it isn't nice to impeach a president. But Clinton should have resigned when this started." The others tried to shush her, but she would not be silenced. "If Hillary hadn't stuck by him at the start then he would have resigned. She knew the marriage was on the rocks for a long time."
Gertrude Lunenfeld, 90, shook her head as the details trickled out. "In other countries, the leaders have girlfriends and mistresses and even in this country look at Kennedy. Nobody cared as long as they run the country right. What is Ken Starr's job? Does he think this is some feather in his cap? And Lewinsky, she is going to write a book? Everyone is disgusted with her."
"If they were to look this hard at other people, the people in Congress or in public, if they were to dig like they've done, they'd find a lot worse about them," said a Jamaican nurse at the center, Yvonne Bogle, 55. "And who is supposed to cast the first stone? If God can forgive him, who are we? Only God can pull him down."
At 2:55 p.m., Georgetown University freshman John Ferris hit pay dirt.
After more than half an hour of error messages and endless hourglasses dancing across his computer screen, Ferris finally pulled up the Starr report on his terminal at the Atomic Grounds cybercafe in Rosslyn.
"I don't want this part," Ferris, 19, complained as he paged through a long list of chapter headings. "This is the part about Monica Lewinsky. That's not my business. I'm interested in the legal part."
But as he scrolled through, the details soon entranced Ferris. His cursor halted at passages that described Lewinsky's garments and her account of Clinton's advances. The finance and business law major read aloud from one of the report's most explicit sections, then exclaimed, "Oh, way to go, Mr. President."
"November 17, the second date," Ferris said as he read, raising his eyebrows and turning slightly red as the report grew more and more graphic. "Usually it's the second date you get the most out of."
After a few minutes, he had had enough. "That's a little more than I wanted to know about my president," he said. "I don't want to be here any more." He signed off and returned to work behind the cafe's counter.
Father north, on the College Park campus of the University of Maryland, computer labs teemed with students, but their screens were filled mostly with personal e-mail or martial arts computer games. Few bothered to search for the Starr report.
"I'm so tired with the Clinton sex scandal," said Kelly Lavin, 18, a freshman who was checking her e-mail for her academic assignments. "It'll be interesting to see what Starr has to say, but I'm not obsessed with the report."
But graduate student Katherine Kerr, 24, was wearing down the Enter key on her computer as she repeatedly tried to call up the report.
"Reload reload reload reload," she moaned, running into one of the Internet's largest traffic jams to date. Kerr, a former intern for Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), was especially eager to see if Starr had found evidence of any other presidential extramarital relationships.
Despite her interest in more dirt, she said she was irritated "that it all had to come to this. If he had told the truth in the beginning, we wouldn't have to go through this now. People are badmouthing Ken Starr. But that's unfair, he's just doing his job."
Readers looked for support for their partisan views evidence that Starr had gone too far, or proof that Clinton ought to be bounced from office. But the pro and anti camps were united in one emotion: sadness.
"This is the man I voted for," Meg Smith, 21, a journalism senior, said as she unsuccessfully sought to download the report. "I am Monica's age when she was in that position. For people my age, this is our coming of age. We missed the Vietnam War and Watergate and gas lines. ... It's the worst political disaster I've ever been in. It's so disgusting and sickening and it's all happening 10 miles away. I'm afraid to look."
Nonetheless, she kept trying.
"Oh, this is so useless," she said as she downloaded the White House's rebuttal to the Starr report. "I want the real thing."
Glancing back and forth between Time magazine and the scrolling captions on an overhead television, Victor Johnson shook his head slowly. He pedaled his exercycle over a virtual hill. Sweat dripped from Johnson's hair and a look of disgust covered his face. As the details poured out of the television, Johnson and other folks working out at Gold's Gym in Fairfax craned their necks to see the latest.
"It's just that he was so stupid about it, like it was a funny, stupid game," said Johnson, 45, a medical assistant at Inova Fairfax Hospital. "I don't know if I can believe that he's sorry, but he shouldn't have to be dealing with any of this in the first place. He's just a human, and he made a mistake. Or a few mistakes."
Stepping off a treadmill, Misook Lee, 35, of Fairfax, looked content. A theological seminary student, Lee wasn't interested in the Starr report's details.
"I appreciate that he said he was sorry to Monica Lewinsky and her family," Lee said. "He has repented. When we repent, God really forgives us. If God can forgive him, I think we can forgive him, and that is all that matters."
But on religious radio, another theology reigned. "This is not a good day for America," talk host Janet Parshal said on her syndicated program. "But it is a good day to learn that there is a transcendent right and wrong, and that there are consequences for our behavior."
At the Stage Deli in Century City shopping mall in Los Angeles, a popular lunch spot for lawyers and entertainment industry employees, an empty room suddenly filled as a waiter flipped on CNN.
As the litany of allegations was read for the first time, a waiter muttered, "Aw, dude, he's going down so hard."
Immediately, waiters and waitresses quit lining up ketchup bottles and stacking pies in the rotating dessert case. They watched, then debated.
"Who cares?" said Linda Sindon, 51. Several other waitresses standing behind her joined in a chorus of approval.
Waiter Kenny Koch couldn't believe what he was hearing. "That's an emotional response," he said of his colleagues' view. Dismissively, he added, "They are so forgiving."
While the salacious reports drew a crowd and sparked several rounds of cigar jokes, there was at the Stage and in other places beyond the Beltway a far more powerful sense of detachment from the goings-on in Washington, a clear belief that the president's travails had little if anything to do with daily life in the country he governs.
"It's just a good distraction from work, but most people don't really care," said waiter Andy Sankus, 27. "What does this have to do with everyday life?" He doesn't watch much television or read the papers, but Sankus nevertheless ripped a ticket out of his order pad to jot down an Internet address so he could look up the report later.
As the TV news droned on, with reporters brandishing individual pages from the Starr narrative, the lunch crowd got back to the business of eating. Within an hour, the bartender asked whether anyone would mind if he switched over to coverage of the U.S. Open. There was no objection.
Staff writers Desson Howe, Josh White, Brooke A. Masters and Dana Hull in Washington, and special correspondents Cassandra Stern in Los Angeles, Kari Lydersen in Chicago and Catherine Skipp in Miami contributed to this report.
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