By Edward Walsh
In interviews in widely scattered parts of the country following Clinton's dramatic televised statement to the nation Monday night that he did not tell the truth about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, voters expressed many of the same emotions and opinions that have marked the seven-month investigation into whether Clinton had a sexual relationship with the former White House intern and conspired to cover it up.
Some reacted with anger and disgust, accusing Clinton of betraying his office and their trust.
"His credibility is gone," said Janice Light, 61, a retired nurse, as she entered an upscale shopping mall in suburban Philadelphia. "He's abused the White House, which is my house also. And I resent that."
Others said they viewed Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky as purely a personal transgression that never should have come under the scrutiny of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
"He cheated on his wife, he didn't cheat the country," said Todd Whitehead, 28, in Atlanta. "He's not the first president this happened to, he's just the first person to have Ken Starr as his enemy."
And still others, expressing no surprise at Clinton's admission seven months after he emphatically denied a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, appeared more than willing to heed the president's call to move on to other matters.
"It was, like, of course they had sex," said Michael Young, 40, a software engineer, as he left his boat at Marina del Rey in Los Angeles. "We all knew it. And so he admitted it because they had him trapped. He said it was wrong. He said he was sorry. What more do people want?"
The first wave of public opinion polls following Monday's speech reflected many of these same sentiments. In overnight surveys by a number of news organizations, a majority of Americans who watched Clinton's address said they are satisfied with the amount of information he shared with them. Nearly six in 10 respondents believe Clinton has done enough to explain his relationship with Lewinsky and a majority of the public agrees that it is a private matter, according to these polls.
In an ABC News poll conducted Monday night, 69 percent said they want Starr's investigation of the Lewinsky matter to end now, a 10 percentage point increase from the days before Clinton's public confession. A large majority also said they want to see Clinton remain in office. No more than a quarter of the public favored impeachment proceedings by Congress in any of the overnight polls.
The public's expressed willingness for Clinton to serve out the remainder of his term signaled a sharp shift since January when the Lewinsky story broke and a majority of the public said that Clinton should resign if he lied under oath.
While the White House could take comfort in these initial poll findings, there was also clear evidence of how damaging the Lewinsky investigation has been to the Clinton presidency. In interviews across the country, voters expressed a deep sense of disappointment and dismay in the president that could harden into even more negative attitudes if Starr's expected report to Congress contains evidence of an attempted coverup and obstruction of justice.
While there were calls for Congress to impeach Clinton, many more of those interviewed said that he should resign, although no one said they expected him to do so.
"If there is evidence that he lied under oath or covered up, Congress will have to proceed with impeachment," said Ian Jones, 28, a teacher in Traverse City, Mich. "No one is above the law."
At Manassas Mall in Northern Virginia, Joe Niemi, 40, said he was less bothered by Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky than he was with his misleading of the public. "He should resign if he's got any integrity," Niemi said. "He's playing a cat-and-mouse game with us. We should get him out of there."
Still, impeachment or even resignation was not something that most who were interviewed said they wanted to see.
"This is going to be a very difficult time for the president," said Nancy Sundstrom, 41, marketing director for the downtown Traverse City business district. "I'd like him to hang in there personally. The country is doing really well and I don't think it hurt his ability to do his job. But the feeling he betrayed the American people goes deep. I don't think he will be impeached. That is such a drastic remedy."
Tom Beck, 59, a Detroit banker who was in Traverse City on vacation, echoed much the same sentiment. "He's an unreliable president," Beck said. "You never know whether he's being truthful or not. But on the plus side, he's done a pretty decent job. I'm glad it's over."
To some of Clinton's strongest supporters, whatever the president's personal failings, they are far less important than his performance in office.
"We didn't hire him for his high moral standards,' said Bill Smith, 54, a land developer who listened to the speech in a suburban Philadelphia restaurant. "We hired him to administer the government. . . . I know he lied. But the average man or woman would have done the same thing, hoping that the whole thing would blow over. I don't hold him responsible for the turmoil in the last seven months."
"It's very sad to see our country going through this, these people putting him through this," added Smith's friend, Jeannine Winsness, 30, a nurse. "We don't need to know this. I don't need to know this."
"It's not like other presidents haven't done the same thing," said Brandon Tell, 22, of Falls Church. "Sure he lied, but it doesn't put us in any harm. He was worried about himself and his family. He did what people do. He's not perfect."
But to others, the admission of lying by the president was a profoundly troubling event. Jim Adams, 50, an engineer from Baltimore who was in the Philadelphia area on business, voiced his objections in personal terms.
"I have a great deal of difficulty telling my children why this gentleman is permitted to lie," he said. "I punish my children for lying. I don't think that's acceptable."
Adams was among those who questioned how Clinton could credibly lead the country after Monday night's speech, particularly if the United States becomes involved in a military showdown somewhere in the world. "What's he going to say to convince me I should send my kids off to fight his battles?" he said.
Clinton's defenders also worried about his ability to lead the nation, but they placed the blame for any damage to the presidency on Starr's investigation.
"The world's on the brink of war again and this is a total waste of time," said Calvin Fluelleen, a X-ray technician in Atlanta.
"The bombings in Africa, Northern Ireland, the Capitol shootings those are serious matters," added Jack Michels, an Atlanta electrician who said he credits Clinton with raising wages.
Clinton's past problems with women, coupled with the intense media attention to the Lewinsky investigation, appeared to cushion the blow from Monday night's statement for many Americans. There were no expressions of surprise among those who were interviewed that the president had admitted to an extramarital affair with a former White House intern in her early twenties.
"I always figured that's what happened," said Joe Perkins, 34, as he sipped a beer in Manuel's Tavern in Atlanta.
In Los Angeles, Craig Wells, 33, a furniture salesman, said Clinton "never just answers the questions. He smoked pot, but he didn't inhale. He had sex with Monica, but he didn't have some kind of sex that legally is sex or something like that."
Wells said he was not impressed with Clinton's statement but wanted the Lewinsky matter ended. "Clinton said he did," Wells said. "There. They had sex. So it's over, but I don't know if it will ever be over."
Eating lunch at a shopping mall outside of Philadelphia, Nancy Bishop, 44, a guidance counselor, said she, too, was ready to move beyond the Lewinsky controversy. "It's clear the guy was fooling around, but you have to put that in context," she said. "Can he run the country? I'm all right with it. My sons are not in a war now. I have a job. I have a decent place to live. I base this on how it affects me."
And in Traverse City, Fred Olach, 39, an engineer from Acme, Mich., spoke in a tone of sadness and resignation as he contemplated the remainder of the Clinton presidency.
"I don't think somebody should lie to the country, but my belief in God tells me no one is perfect," he said. "And God is the best judge of our imperfection. I just hope for the best for him and for the country. Let him finish his term and then never run for office again. I think it would be really bad for the country if he were forced out."
Staff writers David S. Broder in Traverse City, Mich., William Booth in Los Angeles, Ceci Connolly in Atlanta and Josh White in Manassas contributed to this report.
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