By Howard Kurtz
Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune says President Clinton should resign. So do Garry Wills of Time and Lars-Erik Nelson of the New York Daily News. So do the Denver Post, Washington Times, Orlando Sentinel, San Antonio Express-News, Anchorage Daily News, Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader, Economist and Weekly Standard.
All of which raises an intriguing question: Does this flurry of he-must-go pieces have any real impact? Does the clamor make the unthinkable more thinkable?
"I wouldn't say it has no bearing on the discussion going on out there, but I'm fairly certain it doesn't provide compelling reasons to change the discussion over here," says White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. "A lot of people have been on the bandwagon that the president should be run out of office, and they have been on it for seven months now."
But the bandwagon now carries more liberal columnists who frequently defended Clinton until last week, when he admitted misleading the country about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. And that signals an undeniable shift in the political Zeitgeist. Page recalls the wave of national publicity "when the Chicago Tribune, a well-known conservative voice in the Midwest, called for Nixon's resignation." For commentators like him to abandon the president, Page says, "has much more impact than when you're a regular Clinton-basher."
Most Americans have never followed the edicts of editorial pages and talking heads; indeed, polls consistently show that majorities view the Lewinsky matter far less seriously than the media. But the collective power of the punditocracy may produce a trickle-down effect, altering the climate among opinion leaders in a way that eventually reaches the level of water-cooler talk.
Nelson sees public opinion as a "rolling verdict" that is gradually shaped by press coverage and commentary. "As people compare notes with neighbors and friends, listen to talk radio and read us, the verdict can change. . . . I just don't see how the guy becomes anything other than a joke," he says.
Miami Herald columnist Tom Fiedler, who had also been favorable toward Clinton, has joined those calling for resignation. "You cannot ask the American people to prepare to go to war when you don't have trust yourself. . . . I wouldn't want to assume that what I write has major impact, but what columnists write ultimately has some impact on at least shaping the public debate," he says.
William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, hardly expects Clinton to take the magazine's advice. But "for readers who take us seriously," he says, "it lays out an argument that maybe they listen to and maybe they don't. I would think it'd have an effect on conservative elite opinion and Republican political leadership. Obviously it would have more of an effect if the New York Times or Washington Post did it than an ideological journal like ours."
Bob Richter, acting editorial editor of the Express-News, says the response from his conservative Texas readership has been largely positive. But some callers, he says, "want to know why we don't say more about past presidents who've had illicit sex lives. Others want to know why we don't talk about our own sex lives. I don't think that should be part of the debate."
One such debate took place in a columnist's household when Page handed his piece to his wife, Lisa, who supports Clinton. "She comes storming up the stairs and unleashes on me," Page says. "She almost made me sleep on the couch."
At least one politician sees the media's role as critical. Rep. Paul McHale of Penn sylvania, the only Democratic member of Congress to call on Clinton to quit, said on ABC's "This Week" that "once our great newspapers reach that conclusion," it would be difficult for the president to hang on.
Whether they change people's minds or not, the sheer emotion of these rhetorical indictments leaves a powerful impression.
Judy Mann of The Washington Post: "He lied to us with the moral abandon of a 6-year-old caught stealing money from his parents' dresser drawer."
Nelson of the Daily News: "President Clinton confessed to the nation . . . that he is both a liar and a sexual predator."
Page: "His credibility is shot. . . . Who's going to believe anything he has to say now?"
The Washington Times: "An honorable man would not have carried on a sordid sexual relationship in the Oval Office with a woman not his wife -- one young enough to be his daughter."
Manchester Union Leader: "Bill Clinton, a moral vacuum and a man utterly devoid of honor, will put the country through more of this fetid seediness . . . for no greater purpose than to save his own sorry skin."
Charley Reese of the Orlando Sentinel: "Bill Clinton is a sociopath, a liar, a sexual predator, a man with recklessly bad judgment and a scofflaw. . . . There has never been a sleazier, sicker president than this man."
Even liberal publications arguing that Clinton should remain in office describe him in scathing terms. "It's official: Bill Clinton is a lout," began the New Republic's editorial. The Nation called him "a family-values hypocrite caught with his pants down."
The mainstream media, meanwhile, are still grappling with how to deal with the seamier details of the affair between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. In recent days, cyber-gossip Matt Drudge has alleged a kinky sexual episode that would further tarnish the president's image. Fox News reported that Lewinsky told the grand jury that Clinton "was aroused by activities that most Americans would describe as unusual." Republican commentator Mary Matalin made a cryptic reference to "cigars" on Sunday's "Meet the Press." Newsweek said independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report would include graphic sexual details that will make people "want to throw up."
The alleged incident drew further attention this week. The New York Post's gossip page said yesterday that Lewinsky "supposedly" described the episode to Starr's grand jury and that Clinton was asked about it during his testimony. Several British newspapers have weighed in. Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern recited the details to their vast radio audiences. (The Washington Post has not confirmed the allegation.)
The story has also hit the late-night comedy circuit, which often injects political news into the popular culture. Jay Leno explicitly joked about the Lewinsky tale on "The Tonight Show," adding: "I'm trying to figure out how we can even talk about this stuff on a non-cable show."
Fox reporter David Shuster says that "there was a little squeamishness when it came to the details. . . . I personally felt uncomfortable with it. That may be prudishness on my part."
Matalin says she mistakenly let the reference slip on "Meet the Press." "I don't think any of it should be reported," she says. "I don't think we need to know any of this."
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