By Paula Span and Libby Ingrid Copeland
They were standing around in their leotards and Reeboks, waiting for the 9 a.m. low-impact aerobics class to begin at the Total Workout in Montclair, N.J., when someone with a notebook wandered in trying to gauge American women's responses to the Kenneth Starr report.
Instructor Regina Griffith, 41, exploded first. "Leave! Him! Alone!" she yelped, meaning President Clinton, her voice at a volume used to outblast disco soundtracks. "Leave him alone! Stop already."
Monica Stevens, a 40-year-old Merrill Lynch manager, felt the same way. "What he does behind closed doors, it's between him and Hillary," she declared.
Suzanne Manners, 51, added a few bitter denunciations of the independent counsel while lacing her shoes. "It feels like some sort of witch hunt," she said. "Ken Starr is like a dog with a bone."
Not that this group was about to applaud the president's affair. On Saturday morning, lots of d-words flew about the fitness studio: "despicable," "disgusting," "depraved." The president had messed up, big time, and lied about it baldfacedly that was the consensus. But there was little enthusiasm for impeachment or resignation, and lots of muttering about hypocritical finger-pointing. "If a pure moral character and lack of extramarital affairs were the criteria for holding office," chimed in Debbie Schapiro, a 32-year-old homemaker, "there wouldn't be anyone in Washington."
Women have long been more stalwart Clinton supporters than men, providing a critical margin in the 1992 presidential election and and an even bigger boost in 1996 (he drew 54 percent of women's votes vs. 43 percent of men's). In opinion polls during the confounding events of the past few weeks, women's approval for Clinton's presidency, if not for his behavior with Monica S. Lewinsky, also has tended to be higher than men's. According to a Washington Post poll conducted after the release of the Starr report, more men (35 percent) than women (25 percent) said Clinton should be impeached. Men also are more likely than women to believe Clinton should resign, the survey showed.
And if one can take women's political pulse via informal weekend gab sessions in a Las Vegas beauty parlor, a Pennsylvania gym, a Massachusetts boutique, a Detroit catering company, a California bookstore and a New Jersey discount outlet, along with the Montclair fitness center, then it seems that most are still behind him.
Alternately titillated and appalled by what they're reading and hearing, quick to condemn Clinton's philandering in scathing terms (and none too fond of Lewinsky, either), they nevertheless draw clear lines between private and public conduct and think he should remain in office.
There were exceptions, like the acerbic waitress at the Cozy End, a Montclair luncheonette, who blasted the president as "a double-talker" and Hillary Rodham Clinton as "a rich Mrs. Buttafuoco." A patron, Dianne Keegan of Hauppauge, N.Y., wanted Clinton impeached: "He certainly isn't an example for our youth or our nation."
At the Total Workout, Louise Gerace thought the president should resign "This has been going on with so many women over the years" and her friend Jane Re, asked for her opinion, pretended to vomit. Like the other few who wanted Clinton out, they had never supported him in the first place.
But in suburban Wayne, N.J., a‚k‚a the Land of a Thousand Malls, a communal dressing room at the bargain bazaar called Daffy's yielded startling unanimity. Stripped to their skivvies and wriggling in and out of cut-price clothing, the women were white and Asian and Hispanic and black, ranging in age from 30 to 56, and not all of them had voted for Clinton. But in the president they saw a flawed leader who nonetheless had their interests at heart. In the special prosecutor, they saw someone who didn't.
"If they spent $40 million they could dig up dirt about anybody, any of us," said Mary Peretz, a hard-shopping sales manager in her fifties. "Much of what was published was unnecessary for the whole world to read. Should I get these pants?"
At a Montclair salon called Nail Rhapsody, Marie No-Last-Name-Please, 33, had her just-manicured fingertips pearlized peach, very pretty in a dryer. She'd read the report on the Internet, where the racy stuff was helpfully highlighted, then spent half the night gossiping on the phone with her mother, sister and grandmother. "It was like a soap opera," she said, with everyone following the drama while cracking jokes about cigars. "He doesn't seem to be a very healthy person." But she didn't want Clinton to be an ex-president, not yet.
Reacting to the Starr report, women described passing from icky revulsion to troubled tolerance, a process something like the phases that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross postulated for those facing death.
First, the Wrinkled Nose phase. Nobody seemed particularly happy to learn the details of the president's sexual appetite. And despite the chuckles (Was it Cuban? Will Monica be the next cover girl for Cigar Aficionado?), nobody sounded grateful to be confronted with that unsavory little incident, either. "It's information I don't want to know or need to know," said Elizabeth Bousky, 38, a graphic designer in the dressing room at Daffy's.
"I didn't turn on the TV today at all," reported Roberta Piazza, 43, proprietor of a mountain lodge called the Pine Cone Inn in Kernville, Calif. "I didn't want to hear the talking heads. My stomach's been real queasy about this."
But this was quickly followed by Step 2, the Read All About It Anyway phase. The Starr report was part of history. It was irresistible and all but inescapable. Piazza, having avoided the TV, yielded and read "the naughty bits" on a computer conference.
"You're embarrassed to read it, you can't believe it it's the voyeurism in all of us that wants to know," said Sandy Gradman, 59, co-owner of an upscale boutique called the Studio in Brookline, Mass., who'd skimmed the report. "And then you feel guilty about it. . . . It's beyond anything you can imagine."
Before long, women got sucked right into Step 3, the Discuss Amongst Yourselves phase. They were happy to dish about something many have plenty of experience in: relationships.
"It was perfect, the coming together of these two particular kinds of people," Gradman decided. "Him with his weakness and probably some kind of sexual compulsion. And her we all know the profile a little fat girl out there trying to seduce powerful men."
"Kinda like dangling a carrot in front of a donkey," said Olivia Murphree of the Lake Highlands Village Hair and Nail Salon in Dallas, going on to blast "an obscene, nasty, filthy man." It took a moment to grasp that she was referring to Kenneth Starr.
Clinton didn't sound like a very generous lover, some women pointed out. He didn't seem to concern himself much with Lewinsky's pleasure, as the Starr report purported to document in its orgasm-by-orgasm tally. He fell asleep, mid-conversation, after phone sex. Then there was that adolescent wavering: It's over, no it's not, well maybe one more time. "That's how you behave at 17," Gradman noted.
Clinton constantly wants "new sex, not the same old sex," hypothesized hair stylist Deaun Wilkinson, 51, above the noise of her blow-dryer at Beauty and the Best in Las Vegas. The intern was "just another one in a long line of somebody to make life exciting" for Clinton.
Her colleague Connie Clark, 48, had a touch more understanding for Lewinsky. "Until a woman hits her thirties, I think she's very naive," said Clark, with the hindsight of two marriages. "They're hungry to be loved, I suppose, and they'll take it wherever they can get it." Both beauticians would have liked to see Clinton resign, were it not for the fact that they appreciated Vice President Gore even less.
But on the whole, in this highly unscientific sampling, though Clinton certainly wasn't winning any converts with his confessed improper relationship, he wasn't losing his allies, either. Most women who'd voted for him, and a few who hadn't, seem to eventually arrived at Step 4: acceptance.
"I have to separate his personal problems from what he does as president," said Adrian Jones, a computer programmer having a tall cafe mocha at a Montclair Starbucks.
In Brookline, Gradman took a quick survey of the 19 women shopping or working in her store Saturday morning and found that only four wanted him out of office.
When women who'd voted for him were asked if they regretted not having cast ballots for George Bush or Bob Dole, they responded with horror. "God, no!" said one of the shoppers at Daffy's.
The apparent bottom line: President Clinton is a scuzz and a cheat who humiliated his family and betrayed voters' trust, but who also promptly signed the Family Leave Act that Bush had vetoed, protected abortion when Dole would have tried to outlaw it, put Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court and Madeleine Albright in the Cabinet. And even kept a Sarah McLachlan CD she's the founder of the female-focused Lilith Fair concert tour in the Oval Office.
It was possible, women were saying, to hate the sin, to read about the sinner in nauseating detail and want to barf and still to think the sinner was doing a decent job and ought to get back to it. Whether that represented overdue political sophistication or rampant hypocrisy was something for the pundits to chew over.
"I think it's just two people who made a mistake," said Mia Mastrey of Mia's Boutique, which sells "sexy dresses" in Minneapolis, mulling the matter while closing a sale. Tawdry, yes, but adultery "has been going on for centuries and I think it will always go on; it's the human animal."
Meanwhile, "I think we need to judge him on the job we hired him to do," Mastrey said. "Here you go, here's your receipt. Thank you."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company