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Unfortunately Not the
Last Word on the Subject

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 18, 1998; Page E1

Looks like our long national nightmare is not over. President Clinton's speech from the White House last night on the Monica Lewinsky affair was riveting to watch and powerfully delivered, but the pundocrat consensus afterward indicated that instead of ending the ordeal, the president may only have helped prolong it.

The speech seemed to have too much input from pollsters and lawyers, and not enough heartfelt contrition from Clinton.

Before Clinton delivered it, Dan Rather of CBS News called it "a speech that will be designed to save his presidency," and Tim Russert said on the various networks owned by NBC that the three themes would be "candor, contrition and closure."

Clinton was contrite but, it seems, not contrite enough for the commentators, including former White House aide George Stephanopoulos, who now works for ABC News. The five-minute speech "wasn't as contrite as I expected," Stephanopoulos said, and was "more angry than I expected."

Although he did indeed say he'd done wrong, Clinton also took thinly padded pokes at independent counsel Kenneth Starr, the Lord High Executioner who has been persecuting him for years in the hope of getting one of his darts to stick.

"This has gone on too long, cost too much and hurt too many innocent people," Clinton said, but pundits on CNN and other networks said it was partly his fault that it had gone on so long and that if he'd been more forthcoming earlier, it might be over by now.

Certainly the speech was high drama, or high melodrama, on a level that puts most political novels to shame. On CBS, it was dramatic even before it began, because viewers heard an off-camera voice say "five seconds" to the president and then saw Clinton take a deep breath to bolster himself. The most quotable line may turn out to be, "I misled people including even my wife. I deeply regret that."

His delivery of the speech could hardly have been more effective, but the words themselves could and perhaps should have been more self-flagellating, at least if Clinton was trying to appease Congress and the media. As Ronald Reagan did so successfully, however, Clinton was playing to the balcony beyond the Beltway and trying to win that audience over with the illusion of supplicating sincerity.

The president catered to the polls – a strategy that, who knows, may turn out to have been shrewd. Polls show the country is sick to death of the so-called scandal and all the attendant posturing and pontificating that has accompanied it. "Now it is time – in fact, it is past time – to move on," Clinton said, and though he never mentioned Starr by name, the implications were unmistakable.

In slyly attacking Starr, incidentally, Clinton made monkeys of several pundits who predicted in advance that the speech would be entirely free of any rancor and instead be an all-out mea culpa. It was said that Clinton lawyer David Kendall took care of the attacking when he emerged from the White House after the president's long afternoon of testimony via closed-circuit television to a grand jury.

If his speech does more to keep the story alive than to bury it, Clinton will owe the country another apology still, since he will have given the innumerable cable channels and their talk shows yet more grist to mull over. The speech was preceded by what's become a nightly chorus of rantings, ravings and wild speculation that have helped boost the ratings of nutty networks like the Fox News Channel and MSNBC.

Perhaps worst of all – the most rabidly anti-Clinton and one of the rudest people on television – has been Chris Matthews, whose "Hardball" show is a blot on the prime-time schedule of CNBC and who has been as relentless in his Clinton-bashing as Starr has. Matthews literally shouts his entire program – he's the screaming meanie of TV news – and last night's was no exception. People who want to talk dispassionately or reasonably are cut off by Matthews so he can twirl himself into another harangue.

Coming in a close second was Bill O'Reilly, hosting a special edition of his worthless program "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox News Channel. O'Reilly, who appears to be there to espouse the political conservatism of Fox owner Rupert Murdoch, referred to Clinton as "a deeply flawed individual who may turn out to be a criminal" and who may also prove "a corrupt, destructive president." O'Reilly makes Pat Buchanan sound like a contemplative moderate.

By contrast, the producers of "Larry King Live" on CNN gathered an impressive collection of commentators to talk about the speech both before and after it was delivered.

Finding people with something to say about the matter has not been hard for TV viewers. Finding people with something worthwhile to say has been very difficult. With so many channels and so much competition, standards are lowered to the very bottom and anybody with an opinion is slapped onto the screen. The clamor to yammer is tremendous and deafening. No president before Clinton has ever had to face such a pervasive and punishing wall of noise.

What Clinton may have done last night, though, was to make a sad spectacle even sadder – and longer. Starr is not likely to be deterred from seeking his pound of human flesh, or his ton of human flesh as the case may be. No one wants to see a president grovel, but Clinton may not have gone far enough in accepting blame and promising reform.

One longs to see the story knocked off the front page and off the airwaves and cablewaves of the nation, and the hope was that Clinton would come through with a four-star speech to do that. He didn't. Now there's not much to hope for except maybe that Mars decides to stage an invasion and thus force everyone to focus elsewhere.

Maybe people will start going to Canada to sit this one out the way some did during the Vietnam War. Or at least disconnect the cable from the back of the TV set and spend one's viewing time watching old movies. Rather was unfortunately right when he noted before the speech, "It's a turning point, but not an ending." The trouble is, the American people are getting turning-pointed out.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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