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Public Still Giving Probe Cold Shoulder, Polls Show (Washington Post, Aug. 16)


In Bars and Living Rooms, Defenders and Doubters

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 18, 1998; Page A07

Some wanted "truth." Some wanted to see how the "Comeback Kid" would wriggle out of this bind. Others wanted the president of the United States to finally come clean about the seven-month Lewinsky ordeal, live, on television.

But most Americans watching President Clinton's speech last night already had strong opinions about the matter, and his words did little to change their minds.

"That was excellent," Victoria Quinn, 33, a nurse from Silver Spring, said after the address. "He apologized to the people he needed to. He said the right things."

But Ben Moser, 23, a congressional staffer from the District who said he wanted to see Clinton "bare his soul," wasn't impressed.

"I think that was a very cold, political speech. He didn't do anything for me. I don't think it will do anything for the American public."

Still, the brief, sober address from a drawn, intense Clinton was mesmerizing television. At the Capitol Lounge on Capitol Hill, the music was silenced and three dozen drinkers and diners watched the president on eight television sets. "Resign!" someone shouted, and there were hoots at Clinton's mention of God. But there were sympathetic murmurs when he spoke of how he misled first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"He is the finest president we have had in my lifetime," said Janet Aikins, 48, who was visiting from New Hampshire and who blamed journalists for blowing the scandal out of proportion. "The broad point is there are far greater issues to worry about for a United States president."

Around the bar of Whitlow's on Wilson in Arlington last night, when the two televisions first flashed pictures of the president, people in the crowd shushed one another, and a few slapped the bar.

"Here he is!" they shouted, trading Monica Lewinsky jokes during a commercial break before the president's remarks. Bar patrons made it clear they wanted nothing less than a full confession.

"I hope he doesn't lie," said Erick Schulz, 28, of Arlington. "It's the '90s. Things like that happen all the time."

After the speech, Schulz was fairly happy with what the president said. "I just think he shouldn't have been sorry."

At a table by the bar, three young women argued over exactly what the president had admitted to and what they thought about it.

"It took a lot for him to admit this, even though it was inevitable," said Jennifer Duncan, 28, of Arlington.

"He regrets it because he got caught," said her friend Julie Vernon, 27, of Arlington.

Mary Duncan, 26, pointed out that Clinton spent much of the speech talking about his privacy.

"He did a good job of making people feel sorry for him," she said.

Although the patrons disagreed about the president and his right to privacy, they agreed on one thing: He came clean last night only because he had to.

"He should have done it a long time ago," said Steve Carodiskey, 35, of Rosslyn, who described himself as a hard-core Republican.

Still, Carodiskey said he admired Clinton's technique last night. "He's the perfect public speaker. I don't know what else he could have said. I think he could have cried."

At the Rio Grande Cafe in Bethesda, the late dinner crowd had started to trickle out when Clinton came on, and staff members gathered around a television to watch.

"All of this has been so blown out of proportion that I don't even watch the news anymore. But I watched tonight, because this was him talking about it, and he hadn't talked yet," said Allison Farrell, who tends bar and waits tables at the restaurant. "And now he spoke, so I hope that's the end of it."

Restaurant manager Puspa Mohanty, of Beltsville, said: "I don't think it's right that he lied about it. But I think what he said is true; it's a private matter. Do I think it affected his job? No. Do I think this whole process has affected his job? Yes."

Usually when a president addresses the nation, it is for some sober matter. The state of the union. A declaration of war. A grand affair of government.

Clinton's talk was about the type of affair that no president had ever discussed before on national television. Around the country, people wanted to hear what he would say, as in generations past they followed do-or-die acts of contrition such as Richard Nixon's "Checkers speech."

In Venice Beach, Calif., Jack Weinroth, 74, a retired teacher, pilot and businessman, watched from his home.

"The real tragedy is not this whole sex thing. The real tragedy is the money spent by all these interests controlling our government," Weinroth said. "This has kept our minds off the important things. . . . like campaign finance reform, health care, the Asian crisis, and children living in poverty."

Others said they were fed up with the scandal, and they tuned it out.

Margot Ammidown, a Democrat who is studying architecture at the University of Miami, said she and her husband have been reading about the Clinton-Lewinsky matter in the newspaper but "are probably not going to watch. We are sick to death with it. To what, watch him apologize? If anybody ought to apologize to this country it is Ken Starr," said Ammidown, who voted for Clinton. "It is a witch hunt."

Julie Sheppard, 46, is an accounting clerk at a private school and translator for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Florida. "I am sick of it. It is disgusting, he is a liar, and I have to listen to liars every day at work. I know it is kind of hard to get a president that is flawless. But this is just a downright lowlife," said Sheppard, a registered Independent. "At least pretend to have some morals."

Discussions about morals broke out all over -- before, during and after the speech.

At Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street NW, some patrons, such as Myrna Sislen Rice, agreed with the president when he said, "This matter is between me, the two people I love most -- my wife and our daughter -- and our God."

"I think our country has come to a complete halt because of oral sex," said Rice, 48. "I think it's private what the president does behind closed doors."

What viewers wanted most of all from the speech, perhaps, was closure. But they won't get that for some time. There are polls to be taken, politicians and pundits to be heard from, a prosecutor's report to be written.

And some were looking for one other thing: "What I'd like to see is Hillary get up there and say how I kicked his butt for doing this," said Quinn, the nurse from Silver Spring. "I don't feel he needs to answer to me as a voter. He needs to answer to his family."

Staff writers Manuel Perez-Rivas, Steven Gray and Erica Beshears in Washington and special correspondents Cassandra Stern in Los Angeles, Catharine Skipp in Miami and Kari Lyderson in Chicago contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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