Clinton and the Kenneth Inquisition
By Tom Shales
In terms of what was promised or anticipated, President Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony, aired yesterday on all the major networks, ranked with such fabled fizzles as "Godzilla." Clinton didn't breathe fire, grow red-faced with fury or stomp off in a huff, advance word to the contrary. Indeed, he seemed as civil and even-tempered as the humiliating circumstances would allow.
Why this video had to be rushed onto the air, and what Republicans thought they would gain from exposing it, remained a mystery after more than four hours of rigorous viewing by us beleaguered folks at home. The tapes were aired not only on the broadcast networks but also on such cable channels as CNN and MSNBC, and while as television this certainly had a morbid novelty value, the expected explosions never erupted.
It seemed a president of the United States was being needlessly harassed and insulted and that the country was suffering right along with him.
During the days leading up to the telecast, pundocrats on talk shows kept telling viewers they'd be shocked silly to discover that the Clinton we would see in these relatively unguarded moments would be in sharp contrast to the wily, silky smoothie who delivers slick speeches to Congress or chummy chats from the Oval Office.
Imagine, a politician whose public and private demeanors are not exactly the same! Surely this has never happened before in the recorded history of civilization!
But in fact Clinton was much the same as in other televised appearances, even if he didn't know at the time that this particular performance would be seen on national TV as well as on the closed-circuit feed from the White House to the courthouse. Even the much-ballyhooed sexual candor that anchors kept warning viewers about never really materialized, at least not at great length. The Clarence Thomas hearings were a lot smuttier.
Clinton made a reference to the Thomas hearings, and the Anita Hill controversy, during his testimony. Thomas thought he was the victim of a "high-tech lynching." Clinton is beginning to look like the victim of a high-tech crucifixion.
While the televised testimony may have revealed little that was new about the ongoing Kenneth Starr investigation, viewers who sat through it may well have emerged with a new or renewed feeling of sympathy for the president. His having to sit there and try to remember whether he gave Monica Lewinsky a box of chocolate-covered cherries, in addition to being prodded for lurid details of their sexual activities, made Clinton seem vulnerable and victimized.
The fact that the camera remained stationary and glued to him and that no other participants could be seen and that the questions came from the ominous, off-camera voices of creepy-sounding attorneys made Clinton seem a bit like Joseph K, persecuted hero of Franz Kafka's "The Trial." At times the goal appeared to be to rob the president of whatever dignity he's been able to salvage from this torturous mess.
What does Starr have in mind next for him an afternoon in the pillory, perhaps, with Clinton being pelted with fruits and vegetables? Network cameras would be there to transmit it all to the nation, whether the nation wanted to see it or not.
"I need to go to the restroom," Clinton said at one point, signaling one of several breaks in the testimony that required engineers to change to the next videotape. Dan Rather popped up on CBS to say the president had been "sometimes testy" in his responses so far, but had he? Rather was closer to the mark when he said Clinton seemed "aggressive but respectful."
It was appropriate somehow that the broadcast began with a lurch and a clunk. It seems the tapes arrived at the location for the pool feed without labels on them, so that engineers had to preview each tape to figure out the proper order before playback could begin. Network anchors vamped to fill the empty time. Tom Brokaw of NBC News joined Rather in warning that "a lot of explicit language" was coming down the tube and urging that all children be shielded from the dreaded onslaught.
Rather promised that CBS would air the tape on a 30-second delay so that offending words could be bleeped, but none were. ABC used a five-second delay as a safeguard. After about 20 minutes, the network news divisions received transcripts of the testimony so they could see if something wildly obscene lay ahead.
Finally, about 25 minutes late, we saw an engineer's finger hit the "play" button of a professional-style VCR and the tape began unreeling. William Jefferson Clinton raised his right hand and took an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. The definition of "the truth" became something of an issue during the long sessions that followed, however, as of course did the definition of "sexual relations" and of "love." Fairly late in the proceedings Clinton even said, in response to a question, "It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is."
Abbott and Costello Meet George Orwell.
There were indeed moments when Clinton could not conceal his resentment at the direction or repetitiousness of the questioning. Hammered and hammered about things he had failed to say during his deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, Clinton at one point snapped, "I'm not going to answer your trick questions" and later said he detected "some sort of 'gotcha' game at work in this deposition."
Certainly Clinton, who claimed he is "blessed . . . with a good memory" but at many other points couldn't remember what had happened when, came across as evasive, sometimes because he wouldn't indulge the prosecutors' lust for salacious details. Die-hard Clintonians could even interpret his reluctance to discuss the sex acts as sort of gentlemanly, and he pointedly refrained from saying anything mean about Lewinsky.
"She's basically a good girl, a good young woman with a good mind," he said near the end of the testimony. Earlier he said with an admiring smile, "Ms. Lewinsky has a way of getting information out of people." He smiled, too, when a lawyer asked a ridiculous question about Clinton "excluding" others from his trysts with Lewinsky. "It's almost humorous," Clinton said, "but I'd have to be an exhibitionist not to try to exclude everyone else."
Throughout most of the testimony, during which he drank often from a glass of water or a can of soda, Clinton appeared patient and courteous. He never blew his top. When he put on a pair of glasses, halfway down his nose, to read from a brief prepared statement, he looked cute. Obviously Clinton stirs strong passions in people, but it's hard to imagine watching his performance and not feeling a certain sympathy despite the bad things he did in the White House and the fact that during a previous TV appearance he lied right to our faces.
In Washington, viewers had many choices for coverage of the testimony, but they were deprived of the choice of ABC News by WJLA, the network's local affiliate. Station executives chose to preempt network coverage that featured Peter Jennings, Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldson, George Stephanopoulos and others in favor of their own local coverage starring those two giants of journalism, Kathleen Matthews and Paul Berry.
Reached at his office in New York, ABC News President David Westin said of Channel 7's decision, "I'm not as angry as you might think." Westin said ABC News executives had been unable to promise WJLA that the network would stick with the testimony through all four-plus hours, and the station wanted to be sure it carried everything. As it turns out, ABC did broadcast the testimony in its entirety.
There really wasn't much leeway in covering the story except to air the tapes as they became available and comment on them during brief breaks when it was time to switch to the next reel. Even so, CNN managed to muck things up. Anchor Bernard Shaw, who doesn't always know when to keep still, suddenly started speaking over Clinton at one point in the testimony, obscuring the president's words.
"Greta Van Susteren, tell us what prosecutors are trying to do here," Shaw commanded, and soon her negligible babbling was heard over the president's voice. CNN still manages to be amazingly amateurish at times.
Commentators on all the networks tended to agree that the president's appearance wasn't likely to change the mind of anyone who already had an opinion about his guilt or innocence or what his fate should be. But even if Clinton had thrown a fit as was predicted ahead of time, there are some of us, perhaps millions, who would have empathized. It would seem he's more than earned the right to be ticked off. And so, for that matter, have we.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company