By Dan Balz
For two hours here Monday night, the conflicting emotions behind those contradictory sentiments were on vivid display. A dozen residents of the York area debated with one another -- and sometimes with themselves -- the consequences of what Clinton has done and what they, the president and Congress should do next.
It was a difficult and sometimes wrenching discussion, and Angela Crum, a 30-year-old homemaker, seemed to embody all the contradictions within the room.
Crum praised the president for his performance and pointed to a new mortgage that is two percentage points below the interest rate of her old mortgage as evidence of the good he has done the country. But she also was sharply critical of him. "I believe he lied under oath," she said at one point. Moments later, she said, "I don't know that he's truly sorry for what he did. I think he's sorry he got caught." Finally, when asked what advice she would give the president, she said she would tell him "he's done a good job and leave this Monica Lewinsky stuff behind and move on."
The dozen participants, assembled by Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, came with a predisposition toward Clinton. Seven voted for him in 1996 and 11 said they approved of the job he was doing. Only one indicated respect for him.
But over the course of the two hours of sometimes wrenching discussion, they stepped gingerly toward the conclusion that Clinton should resign if he lied under oath, and then quickly stepped away from that conclusion when it was clear a majority of them already believe he has committed perjury.
Toward the end of the evening, Jodie Tierney, a 27-year-old insurance agent, appeared to choke back tears as the group considered how they might react to a Clinton resignation. In words that were barely audible, Tierney said, "I'm at a loss."
"Everyone of them was inconsistent," Hart said after the session that was observed by reporters from half a dozen news organizations. "It tells you how much the country has to work through."
Hart assembled the group to probe beneath the surface of the polls. What was clear was that the next phase of the inquiry -- a report by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr to Congress and possibly an impeachment investigation by the House Judiciary Committee -- could prove to be traumatic for many Americans.
Midway through the evening, the group seemed to deliver a harsh verdict on Clinton, when two-thirds said they believed he had lied under oath and seven said he should resign if he did commit perjury. "He doesn't deserve to be there if he lied," said Marvin Anderson, 40.
Later, when the participants were asked to react to a mock headline that read, "Clinton Resigns, Spares Nation Further Inquiry," only one person thought that likely. More significantly, despite their earlier discussion that Clinton should consider resigning if he lied under oath, the group made it clear they really don't want him to leave office now.
"It would be a shame to impeach somebody for just sexual acts between two consenting adults," said Karen Schaale, 39. "But if he lied under oath, I have a problem. I don't know if we're here to ethically judge someone. I always thought morals and ethics were left up to God."
"I'd be disheartened," said Jeff Kirkland, a 49-year-old counselor. "It would mean the reactionary forces would have won."
Tierney said she would be upset if Clinton resigned over something that was "blown out of proportion." She added, "It's gone too far at this point. I think he lied out of being scared."
Even Anderson expressed opposition to resignation. "Americans are fighters. We don't give up," he said. "I can't imagine he would do that to the United States. He should dig in."
If there was universal agreement among the group, it came in their anger at the media for continuing to publish and broadcast salacious details about the president's personal life.
"I'm not interested in sensationalism," said Launa Groft, 43, who supported Republican Robert J. Dole in 1996 but was adamant that Clinton's personal life was none of the country's business.
David Firestone, a 30-year-old insurance administrator, said he wanted "neutrality" from the media -- and "no spin."
Hart said he was struck by the initial reluctance of the group to discuss the issues in detail as well as the willingness of the participants to render harsh judgments about Clinton's behavior once they were prodded to give their opinions. "They proved they were willing to consider both sides of the issue," he said. But Hart said he also concluded that "they're not ready or willing" for resignation or impeachment.
When the group was asked what advice they would offer Clinton, four said they would encourage him to seek counseling, even as they urged him to stay in office. Ranald Ball, a 50-year-old machine operator, audibly exhaled before before answering. "I would tell him that, regardless of what he did, that I can forgive him," he said. "And I would hope that, in his conscience . . . whatever decision he makes will be in the best interests of the country."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company