April 30, 1998
In his first solo press conference of 1998, President Clinton fielded questions about Kenneth Starr's investigation and defended his moral authority. But how is the President's message playing around the country? The NewsHour's regional commentators give their take.
JIM LEHRER: Now, reaction to what the President said from our regional commentators: Patrick McGuigan of the Daily Oklahoman; Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution; Mark Barnicle of the Boston Globe; and Bob Kittle of the San Diego Union Tribune; and Lee Cullum of the Dallas Morning News.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
April 1, 1998:
A judge dismisses Paula Jones' sexual harassment case against the president.
March 16, 1998:
The president denies the latest allegations of sexual misconduct .
March 5, 1998:
The Washington Post reports details of President Clinton's sealed deposition.
February 12, 1998:
Can Kenneth Starr require Secret Service officers to testify?
Browse the Online NewsHour's White House coverage.
The political dance in Washington.
Cynthia, do you agree with the president, that the last three or four days have been mostly about politics?
CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: Absolutely, Jim. Without making any comment about the president's own responsibilities, it is also true that what we've heard from the Republicans is simply the unofficial opening of the 1998 campaign season. And I think that anything that we hear from Republicans or Democrats between now and November has to be judged in those terms. You've got to remember that the Republicans have been searching for months now for away to capitalize on the president's--on this continuing investigation of the president. And they have not yet quite found a way to get it right so that it resounds with the American public. But certainly they're going to keep trying to do that, and that's exactly what Newt Gingrich is doing.
JIM LEHRER: Pat McGuigan, how did you think the President handled that part of the question today, about Gingrich and the Republicans, et cetera?
PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: Oh, I thought he handled himself very well, which was no surprise, I suppose, to any of us. We know that he's a very deft and capable politician and spokesman for I guess what he thinks is best for the country. I do have a lot of criticisms about the substance. You know, I actually prefer--I did watch the press conference today, but I actually prefer to look at the New York Times or the AP breakdown of the entire press conference the next day so that I can look at words and see the actual content. And if you look at the content, you know, for example, his dig at Gingrich saying, I'm going to leave all those other things aside, but, boy, what he had to say about the tobacco thing really bothers me. We, in essence, have a president who wouldn't respond to the questions from Sam Donaldson and others about the importance of moral character and national leadership. Basically, he's saying that Joe Camel causes young people to smoke, but that presidential behavior and character doesn't have an impact on the national culture and the development of our political life. We have a president that would make that kind of jab on a political matter, admittedly, the tobacco deal, leaving out the context that the deal began to fall apart when it got to what, 550 billion plus. The time to raise questions about that would have been when it was no longer a deal, when it was changing from the 350 billion plus to instead this much higher figure that made the tobacco industry decide that it was in their better interests to walk away from the table. It's not a deal anymore if something's being imposed on someone. That's just an example of his masterful use of semantics.
Mr. Barnicle: "[Clinton and Gingrich], especially the president, seemed to have become almost irrelevant to a lot of people's lives."
JIM LEHRER: Mike Barnicle, Gingrich versus Clinton and how he handled it today, how do you read that?
MIKE BARNICLE, Boston Globe: You know, I was struck today, Jim, listening to the president at the thought that what he has to say and what the speaker has had to say this past week has been met, I think, out in parts of the country, large parts of the country, with almost total indifference, that we're in this hollow period of American history when there is no international crisis, when the economy is doing marvelously well, and these two leaders, especially the president, seemed to have become almost irrelevant to a lot of people's lives. And the other thing that struck me today was that we have reached a pretty sad chapter in American history when the President of the United States cannot provide an answer with regard to character and morality that could be used in a seventh grade civics textbook. He sounded as if he were being deposed today. And I think that's a particular problem for this presidency in terms of all of the lost potential it must involve, all of the lost energy that is probably devoted to covering his tracks in particular areas of behavioral--behavioral issues of his life--and I found it oddly sad, watching him.
JIM LEHRER: And a gain for Gingrich as a result? In other words, his attack means more because of this?
MIKE BARNICLE: I don't think Newt Gingrich has clue one as to how irrelevant he is in this country. I don't think he has clue one, Jim. I think here's a guy whose views seem to have changed as rapidly as his waist size has changed over the last year and a half. And he is saying nothing for months, and then he goes out on a book tour, and someone in Minneapolis at a book signing says to him, apparently, why don't you say more about the president, and so he comes back to Washington, steps up to the plate, and slams him, and people yawn, because this is just political expediency. It's what people expect out of these people, and, you know, it doesn't get anything done.
JIM LEHRER: Doesn't get anything done?
LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: Well, he's absolutely right. I would certainly agree with that, and, you know, I do agree that there's a general boredom with what's going on in Washington. I think that's why "Primary Colors," the film, ostensibly based on the Clintons, is doing so very badly. It's a very good film. John Travolta is terrific. Emma Thomson is brilliant. The performances are wonderful. Kathy Bates is triumphant. But they're talking about a story that no longer interests people. The thing that struck me today--
JIM LEHRER: Why doesn't it interest people?
LEE CULLUM: I think that Mike is right. It seems to have very little to do with their lives. The companies they work for have something--they have something to do with their lives. The stock market has a lot to do with a lot of people's lives because more and more people are invested in mutual funds. But there doesn't seem to be much happening in Washington. In fact, I don't think we have to worry about the energy being spent on the president's problems. He's got to spend it somewhere. And there's nothing going on to spend it on otherwise, and I think that suits the public just find.
JIM LEHRER: So, Gingrich--nobody's out there in the country taking--making score--keeping score.
LEE CULLUM: No.
Clinton vs. Gingrich: an inside baseball story?
JIM LEHRER: Gingrich versus Clinton, and this news conferences--we're the only ones talking about it.
LEE CULLUM: No, I think that they're a little surprised. Gingrich had decided two weeks ago he was going to be Mr. Nice Guy, and now he's changed his mind today. And so we have trouble getting used to--well, you can't get used to a person's personality. I think you disregard that personality.
JIM LEHRER: And the view from San Diego, Bob?
ROBERT KITTLE, San Diego Union Tribune: Well, I think you're right, Jim. This conversation is an inside-the-beltway conversation, if we're simply trying to keep score who's up, who's down, who's on top, Clinton or Gingrich. Mike is certainly right. The country is not tuned in to Washington because times are good, and for that matter, that makes it easier for, I suppose, for the president because he gets most of the credit when the economy is doing well. But what struck me today was the extent to which the president sidestepped the most important questions he was asked, and those were the whole Monica Lewinsky questions and the questions about character. But I guess it is, as we've been saying, in tune with the mood of the country because the country certainly seems to be fed up with the scandal. But this kind of even situation that we're in now won't last forever, and when the next crisis erupts, we may find that the questions about character that the president didn't want to answer today are important to his ability to govern and to lead. And that's something I think we all have to be concerned about.
An acceptance of the modus operandi.
JIM LEHRER: Cynthia, do you agree with that, that whether he answers the questions or not, that this is a very relevant thing at sometime in the future, even though it may appear not to be so now?
CYNTHIA TUCKER: I think moral authority does matter, Jim, but I think it is hard to measure and hard to correlate exactly how it measures. If you think back to not that long ago, perhaps the recent president who's had the most moral authority, you judge him on private behavior, was Jimmy Carter. And yet, we judged him to be an unsuccessful president. He wasn't trusted in foreign crises, and the American public tossed him out of office after a year. I do think when it comes down to a time when the American public may have to make a decision about a crisis and whether to trust in the direction Bill Clinton leads, the erosion of his moral authority will matter. But I don't think it is a neat and precise correlation, and I think one of the reasons that the American people are bored is not just because we are prosperous and at peace--those two things certainly matter--but because the American public's standards have also changed. Whether we like it or not, in households around the country standards have changed.
JIM LEHRER: Hey, Mike, do you agree?
MIKE BARNICLE: No, I don't. I think actually what has happened in Washington is that they have spent an enormous amount of time and energy on successfully spinning this country or many of the opinion leaders of this country into thinking that issues of right and wrong--what's--you know, what's bad and what's good--are basically private matters that are none of the public's business. If that is the true belief in this country, which I don't think it is, then we ought to shut down every grammar school in this country and stop having dinner together as families where issues of right and wrong are discussed, in which children are taught that, yes, this is wrong and this is right. We try to teach children this, so it is important. It is critical, and it's critical in the presidency. And the fact that he could not answer this today is a startling revelation about the guy because he can't answer them.
JIM LEHRER: Startling revelation, Lee?
LEE CULLUM: Oh, I don't think so, Jim. You know, what really struck me about today's press conference was this: There has been an acceptance of the modus operandi. The press knows its role. The president knows his role. You don't have this terrible bitterness that attended the Nixon press conferences. Remember the Dan Rather exchange when the president said are you running for something and Rather says, no, sir, are you? That was bitter. That was ugly.
JIM LEHRER: But those questions today were really tough.
LEE CULLUM: They were tough questions but asked in a pleasant way. I did read the transcript this afternoon--the one that Pat McGuigan was awaiting in the morning--and at the end they say, how's Buddy, how's Buddy, and then one of them says, "I like your necktie." He was very congenial, despite everybody knowing the lines, and giving them a way that was dramatically sound.
JIM LEHRER: So that's the movie that everybody's bored with?
LEE CULLUM: I think so.
JIM LEHRER: In other words, they can see it live, and they don't have to go to the movie and see "Primary Colors?"
LEE CULLUM: I think so.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that Pat McGuigan?
PATRICK McGUIGAN: Oh, I don't know. I think this is one of those times--
JIM LEHRER: There are seven things you can either agree with or disagree with there.
PATRICK McGUIGAN: The--I don't really agree with everything Lee just said. I think I'm closer this time. This happens once in a while. Some people have noticed--I'm closer to Mike on this one. I think that the president's unwillingness, inability, whatever you want to call it, to actually answer these questions is very telling. You know, he says he feels terrible for these folks who have been dragged into this in some cases, no doubt, with a lot of hurt and pain and perhaps some unfairness in the process. But I didn't hear those kinds of expressions of concern about past abuses or excesses perhaps or lengthy, independent counsel investigations expressed by this president or any of his people. I think this president is more responsible than anyone in Washington for the length of these investigations. This is what Wolf Blitzer and a couple of others were trying to get to with their questions, where they were pushing him, saying, well, your lawyers did such and such and such and such to slow these investigations down. The same thing is true in the Jones case. And, yet, he has this semantic ability to kind of elide these things, and he gets in digs at the independent counsel. Of course, the independent counsel, his approval ratings are in the teens.
Mr. Kittle: "That question of his approval rating is a reflection of the economy."
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Let me ask Bob Kittle finally before we go to speak to this question about whether or not the president is reflecting the way we all feel, in other words, the American people feel, whether he is special in some way in terms of the moral authority and our standards, et cetera.
ROBERT KITTLE: Well, I think the American people do hold the president to a high standard, as well they should, perhaps higher than they hold themselves. But the real telling thing about Bill Clinton's presidency today is that in a poll that I saw--I believe it was the Washington Post poll recently--61 percent of Americans said they did not feel that Bill Clinton had the high moral standards that the office requires. And I think something like 58 percent of the people believe he's lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. And, of course, their feelings about those two questions are related.
JIM LEHRER: But 70 percent approve of his job as president?
ROBERT KITTLE: That's correct.
JIM LEHRER: The job he's doing as president.
ROBERT KITTLE: That's absolutely right. I mean, that question of his approval rating is a reflection of the economy. And right now I think he can operate under this situation. But when a crisis erupts and when character counts and when Americans are asked to follow a president and perhaps do something that's difficult, such as engage in a conflict abroad or whatever, the character issue will matter, and that's--that's something that I think we haven't all yet totally come to grips with.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. We have to come to grips with the fact that we have to go. Thank you all five very much.