Q&A With John Harris
Good afternoon and welcome to "Levey Live." I'm Washington Post columnist Bob Levey, your host.
"Levey Live" appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It's your chance to talk directly to major newsmakers and to key Washington Post reporters and editors.
Our guest for Tuesday, September 8, 1998, was the Post's White House correspondent, John F. Harris. John has been assigned to the Clinton Administration since 1995. He previously covered the Pentagon and Virginia politics.
Weatherby Lake, MO: What is the mood of the White House rank and file staffers now that they have been lied to, convinced to lie, required to work in an atmosphere where anytime they may be paying enormous legal fees, etc.? Is the quality of the staff deteriorating due to natural attrition in such circumstances?
John Harris: My sense is that there is considerable demoralization among White House staff members (the vast majority of whom play no part in scandal damage control). The reason is not strictly disillusionment over Lewinsky--many came to terms with that months ago--but the fact that there is very little taking place at the White House right now as far as a policy agenda.
Bob Levey: Has access to White House sources gotten more difficult since the Monica story broke on Jan. 17?
John Harris: The lawyers, who are the people who really know the truth, were always pretty inaccessible. But I have not noticed access to other sources drying up. If anything, the opposite is true. As people feel disillusioned with Clinton or his senior staff, they are a bit less paranoid about speaking with reporters.
Springfield, VA: Did you ever think you'd be writing so much about SEX while covering the White House?
John Harris: No, I didn't. But it's important to remember (and easy to foget amid all the titillating details) that this controvery is in the end about issues of truth (it's now established that Clinton has not told it) and obstruction of justice (still an open question.)
Canandaigua, New York:
How do you think future scholars will assess the Presidency of William Jefferson Clinton ?
John Harris: Is this the famous B. Bell whom I know from AP History? If so, I'd love to talk with you (track me down through the Post). In any event, my short answer to a question that obviously should be answered is length is that this controvery will considerably diminish Clinton's legacy. Even sympathetic historians will be forced to ponder the "what-if" questions. In other words, what more might Clinton have accomplished if not for this controversy of his own making.
John Harris: I would be astonished if Clinton were to resign under the current circumstances. That would go totally against his temperment (or in fairness against the instincts of any successful proud politician. But circumstances change. All of us should remember that it's easy to let speculation get too feverish. Six months from now we may look back and be surprised at how much impeachment and resignation talk is flowing now.
Hilary is a smart, educated woman. Yet there are reports that she is shocked and hurt by her husband's confession
John Harris: We could speculate endlessly on this question (and like everyone else, White House reporters spend a lot of our time doing exactly that). But I think it's very hard to do more than speculate. The fact is the Clintons are such private people when it comes to their marriage that I believe even close aides do not know the truth. This question will be one for the historians.
Bob Levey: The Clintons continue to insist that there is such a thing as privacy when you live in the White House. Can there be? Should there be?
John Harris: There should be a degree of privacy even for presidents. And in fact there is such privacy: Chelsea Clinton has grown up mostly free of intrusive coverage. And even Hillary Clinton is probably surprised that there is enough privacy for the president to carry on an 18-month affair. In my view, a presidential affair with an intern is behavior that crosses any legitimate line of privacy.
Pendleton, OR: Clinton is rapidly losing support among Democrats in Congress and in state capitols, and now with the American public. Even without this scandal, he's a lame duck. But now he seems dead in the water. Do you think he'll resign?
John Harris: Fair observation. The one thing to always remember about Clinton, however, is his proven--and remarkable--capacity to bounce back from disasters that would be the ruin of a typical politician. If he manages to survive this controversy with only a censure or reprimand, he will be weakened, but still holding enough power to perhaps push through some accomplishments, such as Social Security reform next year.
Weatherby Lake, MO: To follow up on an earlier question: Is the QUALITY of the White House staff deteriorating? As well respected people like Lloyd Cutler and Leon Panetta leave --- are their replacements and, more importantly, the replacements' staff of a caliber expected in the White House?
John Harris: I am not ready to make a judgment on the quality of the new staff. It is true that a lot of people who started in the second tier of staff are now rising to the first tier. Maria Echaveste as the new deputy chief of staff, is one example. Joe Lochart, formerly a deputy press secretary, will take over the top job once Mike McCurry leaves next month. These people need to prove themselves, but I think it's quite reasonable to expect they will. But it's a tough environment they are coming into, in the present controversy.
Bob Levey: Does Clinton really disdain reporters? He strikes me as a man who likes good conversation and good stories--as do most reporters. There ought to be a bond there. If not, why not?
John Harris: I think Clinton has mixed, but on the whole fairly negative, feelings toward reporters. He is someone who likes to shoot the breeze and engage on different subjects, and he does this occasionally with reporters (both on and off the record). But, on balance, I believe based on conversations with staff that he generally feels most reporters are out to damage him. And, since our job is to constantly try to hold elected officials accountable and point out to the public when there are inconistencies, this naturally and appropriately leads to a degree of tension.
Half an hour remaining with our guest, the Washington Post's White House correspondent, John Harris.
Bob Levey: I'm not trying to be ghoulish about this, but some reporter, some day, somewhere, is going to march up to Chelsea Clinton and ask what she thinks about all this. Do you think this is proper? Do you think Chelsea can or should be off limits forever?
John Harris: I expect someone will ask her that. I don't expect it will be me. It may be that, in time, Chelsea Clinton will wish to share her thoughts on this subject or on growing up in the White House generally. Some people thought that she would receive more aggressive coverage once she turned 18 and went to college. I have not noticed that to be the case.
Potomac, MD: Once Starr presents his report- how far do you think impeachment proceedings against the President will go with our Republican Congress?
John Harris: Of course it all depends on what's in the report. But my guess is that a lot of Republicans are just as happy to leave Clinton in office in a weakened state.
Wash, DC: Do you think this is one of the most exciting times to be reporting on White House issues, or are you just sick to death about the whole thing? (like so many of us are) I would think someone with your job would be more interested in politics than scandals... or is that naive?
John Harris: This controvery is both interesting and wearying. Like most of my colleages, I find much of the subject matter and details in this controversy to be quite distasteful. Like many in the public, I would be happy to see closure in this controversy "sooner rather than later" to use President Clinton's phrase. But I do not apologize for covering it. Possible obstruction of justice by a president is unambiguously a legitimate coverage topic. To my mind, so is a president becoming sexually intimate with a young intern. Also, to the extent that we all wish this controversy could come to an end, it's worth remembering that the president's own defense stratetgy has guaranteed that it would drag on.
Bethesda,MD: How much pressure do you think will dan burton's sex scandel affect the congressional proceedings for clinton?
John Harris: I suppose to the extent that there are members of Congress with things in their private lives that they wish to keep from exposure, the Burton disclosure may diminish the appetite for pursuing the Lewinsky allegations. I suspect this factor will be pretty minimal, however. I don't think the Burton and Clinton situations are very comparable.
Hartford, Wisconsin: VP Al Gore initially showed support for Pres. Clinton. Has he changed his posture in public? What will be his response as more Democrats openly criticize the President?
John Harris: He has continued to show public support for the president. I would be very surprised to see this change, no matter what happens with other Democrats. I think he has made a judgment, based on personal loyalty and political self-interest, that he will support the president in all circumstances.
Washington, DC: It used to be quite an accomplishment to become a White House intern. Has President Clinton changed that, making it more difficult to attact the best young people, especially females?
John Harris: I know of no evidence that this is the case. The White House says there continues to be robust interest in the intern program. I know of no independent reporting on this question.
I like to know what is the
John Harris: That is an interesting point. It's another reminder of why President Clinton is in serious trouble. The deception involved in the Lewinsky relationship has elevated its relevance even among many people who don't think that sexual transgressions on their own are anybody's business.
Gainesville, FL: The last question was about Gore. What does this do to him for the 2000 campaign, especially in light of the campaign finance problems he's having?
John Harris: Well, it certainly does not help. Gore strategists say the public makes a clear distinction between the allegations against the president and their view of Vice President Gore. This seems plausible to me. Despite the uncertainty caused by the campaign-finance questions, I think Gore remains the presumptive favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2000.
Laurel, MD: All news reports are telling of a Whitehouse staff feeling betrayed by their boss and morale is really low. If that is the case, how is this affecting their ability to push the President's programs and adgenda in Congress?
John Harris: I think flagging morale, as well as the preoccupation of the president and his senior staff, is a problem in pushing an agenda. On the other hand, after the failure of the tobacco legislation in July, there is not an extensive White House domestic policy agenda anyway. This fall will bring showdowns over spending bills, and it is unclear whether the scandal will significantly harm the president's leverage against Republicans in this area.
Bob Levey: Is there a mood of vindication among the White House press corps now that Clinton has admitted having lied?
John Harris: I really don't perceive any such mood of vindication or gloating. I think some people at the White House are wishing they had softened some of their earlier statements of belief in the president, as well as some lectures on how outrageous it was that people did not accept his denials at face value.
Bob Levey: Clinton once said he might like to be a university president after leaving the White House. But that was pre-Lewinsky. What do you think his post-presidential employment options are now? What will they be if he's impeached and removed from office?
John Harris: I think all presidents do just fine upon leaving office. I do not expect Clinton to be any different, regardless of the circumstances of how he leaves office or the Lewinsky controversy comes to an end. A university presidency remains a plausible option for him; so do speaking engagements and a contract to write memoirs.
That's it for today. Our thanks to White House correspondent John Harris. Be sure to join us on Thursday, Sept. 10, from 2 to 3 p.m. Eastern time, for a special edition of "Levey Live." Our guest will be Anthony Williams, a leading Democratic candidate for mayor of Washington, D.C.