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Does the Public Care about the Lewinsky Matter?

August 6, 1998 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: All right. Stick with us, but let’s widen this out now with our regional commentators: Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution; Patrick McGuigan of the Daily Oklahoman; Lee Cullum of the Dallas Morning News; and Robert Kittle of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Joining them tonight is Jim Boyd of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. And Jim Boyd, how do you explain the public’s apparent disinterest in this story?

JIM BOYD, Minneapolis Star-Tribune: I’d explain it exactly the way your pollster did. Bill Clinton’s our president. He’s been elected for a second term. He’s not going to run for reelection. He’s not going to be impeached for this. And so please let’s get off this. Let’s pay attention to the economy. Let’s pay attention to what’s happening in Asia. Let’s pay attention to the stock market, but let’s not worry about dresses and stains and things that probably shouldn’t ever have been as big a deal as they are right now anyway.

MARGARET WARNER: Lee Cullum, how do you explain-do see this lack of public interest, and how do you explain it?

LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: Well, Margaret, I think that Jim’s point is well taken. The people I talked to are fed up with the story. I think that they are willing to overlook the President possibly allegedly having lied about this relationship, because perhaps they think the questions were inappropriate in the first place, questions about his personal life. I think it’s actually an age of private life, not public life. People are not interested in politics, and for that reason they’re willing to let politicians do whatever they want to do as long as they’ll just leave everybody else alone.

MARGARET WARNER: And leave us alone with the story. Bob Kittle, how do you explain the public lack of interest in this?

ROBERT KITTLE, San Diego Union-Tribune: Well, perhaps, Margaret, the American people are simply waiting for all the facts, and at this stage, I think it’s certainly true that the sentiment is not to impeach the President if all that is here is that he lied about a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. But as Andy Kohut suggested, if the facts come out that there was more to this, that there was a conspiracy to obstruct justice, for example, if those facts emerge from this investigation, and I think it’s very likely that the American people may take a much stronger view of this, not that they necessarily will be calling for the President’s impeachment, but if there’s more to it, than certainly Americans will not be so inclined, as Jim seems to be right now, to say let’s forget about this and get on with it.

MARGARET WARNER: Cynthia, go back though to this question about the public’s lack of interest. I mean, why was the public so fascinated by the O. J. Simpson case, which went on and on and on, and they don’t seem very interested in this one?

CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: Well, O. J. Simpson was not the President of the United States. I don’t think the public is interested in hearing sordid details, sordid allegations about the sexual life of the President of the United States. I also think that the American public is being very pragmatic about this. They have separated the president’s public performance from his private conduct, and they’re clearly-they clearly don’t approve of his private conduct if the allegations turn out to be true. They don’t find that behavior admirable. But they also know something about the history of other presidents of this country and something about human history in general. Franklin Roosevelt, who is still believed to be one of the best presidents in U.S. history, died in the arms of his mistress. So I think that the American public are taking the pragmatic view that if you run presidents out of office over their sex lives, if there is no illegal conduct here, then we would have very few people who could survive the scrutiny that it takes to become president.

MARGARET WARNER: Pat McGuigan, your view on the disinterest and what it stems from.

PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: Well, I think everything that’s been said already has some validity to it. I do believe that the way polls are put together and the kinds of questions asked can sometimes lead to your results, and I’d be interested in asking Mr. Kohut what the refusal rate was, for example, because a lot of pollsters have been expressing a worry about a substantial portion of people, particularly in telephone polling, refusing to answer questions, and the reason might be to play off some of the earlier comments, that people might be tired of the scandal, but I think some people are kind of tired of polls. They think we’re over-polled in the American electorate, and also-

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get Andy to reply on that, Pat. Just a minute. Go ahead, Andy.

ANDREW KOHUT, Pew Research Center for the People and the Press: I don’t have time for a lecture on polling methodology, but we did do a big experiment last year to show that the refusal rate has no political or ideological bias to it, as some conservatives and Republicans charged after the election. We spend a lot of time in the field doing a very rigorous job, and all of the polls-this is a consensus of what the polls are showing-this is not something methodological aberration.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay, Pat. I’m sorry, I interrupted you. Go ahead.

PATRICK McGUIGAN: Okay. The other thing-

MARGARET WARNER: Address now the question of the gap between the fact that more and more people believe the allegations are true, yet, fewer of them are saying they think they’re impeachable.

PATRICK McGUIGAN: Well, I think Americans–like each one of us on this panel-sometimes hold mutually contradictory positions–”a” does not necessarily lead to “b”, because not all of us are philosophers or live in ivory towers. We live in the real world, so I think there’s a tolerance that people have referred to. I also think, though, that this hasn’t played itself out, and Mr. Kohut was wise to point that out. And you remember 24 years ago this month we had something very significant happen in American history and it was not an impeachment; it was a resignation. And I would be curious to pick up on any intelligence Mr. Kohut or other pollsters might have on that option. The Daily Oklahoman has encouraged the president to resign so that the country can get on with substantive policy debates. That’s not been included, and if voters, the electorate had that option, the polls might be a little different.

ANDREW KOHUT: I doubt that. I think that the public basically doesn’t want to see the Clinton administration end over this particular affair for a variety of reasons.

MARGARET WARNER: We talked about-Cynthia, you addressed the gap between people believing the allegations may well be true but not wanting to see the president impeached, but just talk a little bit more about that. Do you think-they say-is it a personal tolerance, or is it more maybe what Andy was saying, that things are going well, they like this presidency, and they just don’t want to rock the boat?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: I don’t think that Americans or certainly I don’t think a majority of Americans approve of that kind of behavior, although many of them may know a very similar behavior in their own marriages, among their friends, and acquaintances. It is a real life circumstance. It’s not something that we admire. It’s not something that we-the kind of behavior that we want to see our children engage in, but adultery, unfortunately, is fairly commonplace in this culture, and again, as far as I can tell, in many cultures throughout the world, so I think that Americans are perfectly willing to understand that they have elected a president and not a priest.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Kittle, your view of that.

ROBERT KITTLE: Well, I think there’s something to that, but, again, there’s more to the presidency than simply behaving the way everyone else does, and I think the president, while he probably will not face impeachment over this, will have squandered a great deal of his moral authority as president if the facts show that he had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky and lied to the American people about it. So I think there’s a terrible price that he will pay short of impeachment if the facts here are established that, indeed, he did lie to the American people. This is not really about adultery. This is about character. This is about the president’s public performance. And when he looks-looks the American people in the eye and wags his finger and says, I did not have sex with that woman, and then it turns out that the facts show that he lied to us, there will be a price to be paid for that, I’m afraid.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, Lee Cullum, that if through whatever means it turns out these are true, that these numbers could change, that the public could become more dissatisfied with this president?

LEE CULLUM: Margaret, I don’t know. Possibly so. I think that we in journalism certainly imagine that that would be the case but not necessarily. If you read Andy’s poll and look at those figures carefully, you have to ask yourself if we’re seeing a shift in ethical thinking in this country. It is perfectly possible. I think those poll figures are telling us that it’s okay to lie under oath if the subject is sex. Now the question is: is it okay to lie under oath about other subjects? We don’t know. I’d like very much to see an intelligent and sensitive poll taken about ethical thinking in the country today. We don’t know exactly what it is. We’re about to find out.

MARGARET WARNER: Jim Boyd, do you think these numbers could change if the proof changed, if the situation changed in that sense?

JIM BOYD: Well, obviously you can’t really answer that question convincingly right now. Of course, you can’t imagine what might change. I can-I can say that if it just develops that he had a sexual relationship and lied about it, I don’t think the numbers will change, but I don’t think that means what Bob Kittle thinks it means, which is that people want to forget about it. I think they are making a distinction between impeachable offenses and non-impeachable offenses. And they are thinking about-someone mentioned going through the resignation of Richard Nixon 24 years ago. I remember that. I remember pulling a week’s worth of Doonesbury cartoons because I didn’t think it appropriate to be laughing at the White House and Watergate at that somber moment. And I don’t think people are sanguine about resignations as they are in Oklahoma City apparently. It-this is serious business and while I can agree with what these folks have been saying about it, I would like some agreement on the other side that Dan Burton’s out of control and that the Republicans have been after this president for two terms unmercifully, and that a lot of what has happened to this president and this presidency is not his own doing at all.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. I would like to get to one other topic briefly, which is the woman at the center of this, and starting with you, Andy Kohut. She, of course, hasn’t said anything publicly. What does your data show the public thinks of her? Does she have a public image-Monica Lewinsky?

ANDREW KOHUT: She has a terrible public image, and I think she’s critical to the amount of cloth the public cuts the president, because she’s not seen as a victim. Fourteen percent of the public see her as a victim. She’s not seen as the victim of a powerful man. If the president was seen as using his power over this hapless young woman, I think reaction on the part of a lot of people, particularly women, who are important to his constituency, it would be entirely different. I think her view is critical. I think the view of Mrs. Clinton supporting the president are critical. If anything can possibly change, it’s the image of Monica Lewinsky through this testimony. If that changes, perhaps, perhaps opinion about the gravity of this situation might change.

MARGARET WARNER: Lee Cullum, what’s your sense of what kind of an image Monica Lewinsky has? What has she become? Other than her legal importance to the case, has she become any kind of figure in a cultural sense?

LEE CULLUM: Oh, Margaret, I think that she is seen as a very unwise young woman who has a lot of growing up to do. I would imagine that mothers of daughters who are 18, 19, and 20 point to Monica Lewinsky and say you better watch out, you don’t want to get into this kind of trouble. I can see her as a cautionary tale. I can also see her 20 years from now, though, living on one coast or the other, worrying about her teen-age children, and determined they will not work as interns in the White House.

MARGARET WARNER: Cynthia, what about you, what do you think her image is, as you perceived?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: I think her public image is at the moment unfair to her because we really don’t know her. She hasn’t had the chance to speak for herself, but I also think that the way many people think of her as a groupie, a groupie for politicians, particularly very powerful politicians. Rock stars have groupies; athletes have groupies; and I think that we think of Monica Lewinsky as, as Lee said, a very unwise young woman, a little bit of a space cadet, who very much enjoyed the idea of being very close to the president in enjoying a very special relationship.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Pat, your view, briefly. Does she have an image-does she have a lasting–

PATRICK McGUIGAN: I think that the key question is what she has to offer in this legal proceeding, and we really don’t know that, we really don’t even know, we see a lot of leaks, we see a lot of things come out. We don’t know how good a witness she’s going to be, and that’s really the key question legally. On the cultural question I think she’s proof yet again, which we’ve had many times in the last 30 years, that the free love or 1960′s culture sort of values-although that might be unfair to the 1960′s-that those don’t work in the lives of real human beings, those kinds of values. People need intimate and personal relationships that are stable and moral.

MARGARET WARNER: All right.

PATRICK McGUIGAN: They don’t need this kind of behavior.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you. On that provocative note we’re going to have to end it. Thank you all very much.