December 22, 1997
Right-wing frame-up, colossal mistake, or impeachable offense? NewsHour regional commentators reflect Outside the Beltway views of the President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal as the 1998 State of the Union address looms. Elizabeth Farnsworth and Jim Lehrer lead the discussion.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And with us are NewsHour regulars Patrick McGuigan of the Daily Oklahoman; Lee Cullum of the Dallas Morning News; Bob Kittle of the San Diego Union Tribune; Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution; and Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe. And joining them tonight is Gene Lyons, columnist with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock. Pat McGuigan, are the allegations now swirling around the President part of a vast right-wing conspiracy as the First Lady suggested today?
PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: It's an amazing comment by the First Lady this morning. I'm still kind of stupefied by it. The only thing I can say is it's kind of amazing to propose that Newsweek, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, for that matter Jim Lehrer in his interview last week on the NewsHour, and all these other players are part of a right-wing conspiracy. I think there are varying shades of grade all across the political spectrum. And what the First Lady has done is to take some of the more outlandish things that have never been mainstreamed even in most of the conservative publications in the country, and she's using those as a basis not only to tar conservatives in general but very intriguingly to begin to seem to propose that any of us who ask questions in the press corps are part of that right-wing conspiracy. I think that her comments were designed to intimidate people and keep them from pursuing this story, which has finally broken into the mainstream of the American news media.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Gene Lyons, do you think her comments were designed to intimidate other press people?
GENE LYONS, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: Oh, gee, I think that's a little hypersensitive. I don't think there's any sign that people are going to slow down. I think possibly she's selected her terminology infelicitously. Conspiracy has criminal overtones. I think it's a bad--I think it's a bad word. But it's very difficult not to conclude that these kinds of charges and some of the individuals, indeed, who would be involved in the Paula Jones case and involved in the background of these charges have, indeed, also fostered charge--bizarre charges about drug smuggling and murder and all of that kind of business about the Clintons since they came into office. These things have been published in journals such as the "American Spectator," and the "American Spectator" is substantially funded by a man named Richard Mellon Scaife, who also has underwritten Kenneth Starr's--put about a million dollars into Kenneth Starr's presumptive chair in Pepperdine University, also funds Vince Foster conspiracy theorists and various organizations promoting that idea. So I don't think she's crazy or wacko or off the wall, and I don't think she's raising an issue that's mad.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Cynthia Tucker, but on the current charges now, do you buy her explanation that they are politically motivated?
CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: Well, back in the 60's there used to be a saying that just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. I think that there's an interesting corollary in this case just because they're out to get you doesn't mean perhaps you didn't do something. I think that this story is complicated because the president may well have behaved inappropriately, but it is also true, as Gene pointed out, that even in these allegations there are people involved who clearly had it out for Bill Clinton and perhaps Hillary Clinton as well. You have Linda Tripp, who sent the tapes to Kenneth Starr. Now, how many of us when a friend calls to complain who's distraught about a love affair going badly, how many of us think to run to turn on a tape recorder? That strikes me as unusual. And then there's that woman Goldberg in New York who is Linda Tripp's agent, who is involved in this. She suggested Linda Tripp start the tapes rolling. She said that in the 70's she was a spy for Richard Nixon on the McGovern campaign trail. So there's a very odd cast of characters here. And I think Hillary Rodham Clinton is trying her very best to change the subject by drawing our attention to those characters; however, there is also very strong evidence being investigated by journalists and by Ken Starr that the President may well have behaved inappropriately. So if they were out to get them, it seems to me that Bill Clinton has helped them along.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Bob Kittle, where do you come down on this?
ROBERT KITTLE, San Diego Union Tribune: I'm afraid I just cannot buy the notion that a vast right-wing conspiracy is somehow responsible for this. If there is a vast right-wing conspiracy, then Janet Reno, the attorney general, is part of it because she okayed Kenneth Starr's expansion of the probe to include the Monica Lewinsky matter. The three-judge federal panel, which also approved that expansion, must be in on the conspiracy. And I guess the FBI is also because the FBI, after all, collected the evidence of the taped conversation between Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky at a hotel near the Pentagon. So I just cannot accept this notion. I think it makes for an interesting political defense. But to somehow suggest that Jerry Falwell and Jesse Helms are orchestrating all of this is simply not credible. This investigation is going on because Kenneth Starr was presented with credible evidence of potential wrongdoing by the President and perhaps some of his aides. And he would have been irresponsible not to follow up on that information, not to present it to the attorney general to show what he had and to seek an expansion of his probe. That's simply the objective case. Regardless of his motives or the motives of anyone else, there is evidence there that must be examined to determine whether crimes were committed.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mike Barnicle, do you agree with that, that Kenneth Starr's actions are quite understandable?
MIKE BARNICLE, Boston Globe: Well, I think Kenneth Starr's actions, his one action with regard to potentially involving the President of the United States in a sting operation with a 24-year-old former intern is ludicrous. But let's just say that there is a conspiracy about in this country. Let's just say that there's a lot of maliciousness and venom in the air, which there is. Let's say that there's mean-spiritedness in the coverage of politics, which I think there is. There is one defense that is more powerful than any deposition, more powerful than any allegations made or perhaps yet to be made. And that's the truth. You come right out and you say what the truth is quickly and honorably and effectively. And you end the conspiracy, and you short-stop the allegations, and the depositions no longer mean anything if you have the truth on your side. I think the basic problem here is that this country feels that we have not yet heard the truth.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lee Cullum, is that right, that the truth is the best defense here?
LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: Yes. I think so. In fact, I think there's a saying, Elizabeth, that says in times of crisis the safest place is in the hard proof. And I think that is the case here. I can understand why the First Lady feels besieged, and I can understand why she identifies some of her enemies as right wing. The Rutherford Institute, for example, is certainly very conservative, and it is funding the Paula Jones case. You can be sure that it's not interested in abused women, that it is interested in a political figure. It's interested in the politics of the case. That's my assessment of it. However, you don't have to be a right-winger to be disturbed if a president uses sexually a 21-year-old intern, assuming that happened, and then pressures her to perjure herself. It seems to me that while there may be those on the right who are out to bring down the Clintons, the President, if he did what Monica Lewinsky alleges he did, certainly has given them some ammunition.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lee Cullum, you heard Dan Balz tell Margaret just before this that what the First Lady hoped to do was to change the terms of the debate, to get the story off on a different way. Do you think this will succeed in doing that so that the focus is elsewhere?
LEE CULLUM: No, Elizabeth, I don't see how it can possibly succeed in that regard. I can understand her trying to say change the subject. I can--and I can also understand why she sees a web of wrongdoing that's quite ominous for her and the President and all of these characters. And I think Gene Lyons is right; there have been some reprehensible things said about the Clintons by various characters in the drama. But we have a young woman, Monica Lewinsky, who said certain things on tape. You can say that it was a fantasy, but I don't see how she fantasized the perjury. And from what I've read of those tapes, she talks a great deal about her distress about the perjury, and my reading of Linda Tripp is she feared that she was going to be called to testify and was worried about protecting herself. I'm not saying that that is--she's going to have stars in her crown for that, but I can understand it. I think that the facts in these allegations are going to prevent a conspiracy theory from getting very far.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Pat McGuigan, what do you think about that? You think the debate is going to turn the corner now, take a different turn, take a different--there will be a different focus?
PATRICK McGUIGAN: Well, I think that people in the mainstream press corps are paying attention at long last to a lot of allegations about Mr. Clinton's habitual misbehavior that have had a lot of substance to them for many years. I'm sorry to say that one of the things that happens in situations like this is that truly innocent people begin to have their reputations smeared. And that might be the case with John Whitehead. I think it's safe to say that he and the Rutherford Institute are very conservative, but Whitehead is an outstanding attorney who has a great heart, if you will, that's an evangelical term, for those who have no voice in the legal system.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Remind people of--
PATRICK McGUIGAN: And that's the motivation behind him getting involved in providing some legal help to Paula Jones, in my opinion.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Bob Kittle, is this story as big in your part of California as it is in Washington, D.C.?
ROBERT KITTLE: Absolutely, Elizabeth. It's the topic of endless conversation and speculation and worry about where the presidency is headed. Unfortunately, here, as elsewhere, it also--this whole situation has become the butt of a lot of jokes and a lot of ridicule. The presidency, regrettably, whatever the facts will ultimately show, today the presidency is being dragged through the gutter by this. And it's a very unfortunate situation, and I don't find anyone, including longtime opponents of the President, taking much glee in the sordid nature of this particular scandal. It's a very uncomfortable thing for people to talk about, but yet everyone is riveted by it, and everyone is talking about it. I'm sure it's just as much a topic of conversation here around the dinner tables as it is inside the beltway.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Gene Lyons, tell me about how Little Rock, which has such a direct interest in this story is reacting from what you can see.
GENE LYONS: Depression, defensiveness, disbelief, anger, all the standard emotions that you would expect to feel that the native son--there's great fear. Some people who I've never heard doubt--who don't believe any of the previous allegations--are very troubled by this, and they do want to hear Bill Clinton's defense. I would say, however, that if this were the publisher of the newspaper I work for, any other prominent public citizen in Arkansas, these allegations in the form they're in would never have been published unless and until the investigation. And the investigation would have been conducted in private. Once the media gets involved you got a very strange situation. People do want to hear Bill Clinton's explanation, but they do understand, I think most people understand, that he's in a very bad position to give a full explanation of what his story is until her story is in the can, more or less, so that you can only tell the truth once in a situation like this, if you're facing someone who for the sake of argument now is making something up. Second, I would add that we're talking about John Whitehead and the Rutherford Foundation. This is the same Mr. Whitehead who in June 1995 wrote an article endorsing Jerry Falwell's charges of drug smuggling and murder in the Rutherford Institute magazine. This is the kind of thing Mrs. Clinton's talking about.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I've lost my audio.
JIM LEHRER: We have a problem.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Sorry. I've lost my audio. I can't hear anymore. Sorry.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Elizabeth can't hear anymore. Can you all still hear me out there around--all right. Right. Live television. What is your reaction to what Gene Lyons just said, Cynthia Tucker?
CYNTHIA TUCKER: Well, I think that he mentioned the fact that there are a lot of people in Arkansas who are very concerned, very depressed, very angry. I think that that has been the reaction in Atlanta, throughout much of Georgia as well. I am fascinated by the fact that though Georgia is a conservative state and certainly we have heard from many readers who've said, didn't we tell you that this was Bill Clinton's character all along, there have been many people alternately who said, wait a minute, none of this has been proved. If he had engaged in sexual activity with this young woman, he's still been a good president. I think most of us, however, are still desperately waiting for the President to give some definitive explanations for this.
JIM LEHRER: All right quickly, Mike Barnicle, what's the reading in Boston?
MIKE BARNICLE: Jim, I'll tell you, I don't think--this is no longer a story about politics or ideology. When people are worried about the news coming on their car radios, when they're giving 13-year-old boys a ride to hockey games, for fear of the fact that something will be mentioned that the President may have been up to, we're into something entirely different now. I think there's a weight on this country, a burden on the shoulders of this country that the President and only the President can lift by telling the truth, by telling us of his relationship with this woman, telling us what happened, telling us why she went to the White House and what the deal is.
JIM LEHRER: Okay, Mike, and all six of you all, thank you very much.
The PBS NewsHour is Funded in part by: Additional Foundation and Corporate Sponsors
Copyright © 1996- MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. All Rights Reserved. Support the kind of journalism done by the NewsHour...Become a member of your local PBS station.