March 17, 1998
The NewsHour's regional commentators discuss the impact that Willey has had on the public opinion polls of President Clinton and how people are responding to the recent accusations.
JIM LEHRER: This was poll day in the Kathleen Willey story. The question was whether her accusations of sexual misconduct by the President had had an impact on public opinion. Three major polls taken after Willey's interview on CBS's "60 Minutes" last Sunday suggest nothing's changed. The President's job approval rating remains above 60 percent. The CBS News poll asked how important to the nation were the sexual allegations about the President. 24 percent said great, while 45 said very little.
A CNN/USA Today Gallup Poll found about the same number of people believe President Clinton's version of events as believe Kathleen Willey's. The same poll asked if Willey's charges were more serious than those made by other women. 61 percent said no. We take our own poll now from our regional commentators: Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution; Patrick McGuigan of the Daily Oklahoman; Lee Cullum of the Dallas Morning News; and Bob Kittle of the San Diego Union Tribune. Mike Barnicle of Boston Globe is on vacation. Joining the others tonight is Gene Lyons, columnist for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette and author of the book "Fools for scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater." Lee Cullum, how do you see the importance of the Kathleen Willey development?
LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: Jim, I think it does have some importance. I think it's very significant that Patricia Ireland of the National Organization of Women came out finally and said that there is a potential problem here with the President. I think women's groups have been extraordinarily reticent on these issues because the President has been so very good on women's business. They've been so very good on abortion that they hesitate to upset the apple cart at all. I think it has importance.
I find Kathleen Willey credible, and I must say that I don't credit these letters that she wrote after the alleged incident. That would be a very normal thing to do. She wanted to maintain her relationship with the President. He was her boss potentially. She wanted a job. She wanted access to the social life of the White House. She wanted to reassure him that there was nothing wrong, no hard feelings. And, you know, Gay Telise wrote a book years ago called "Honor Thy Father" about the mafia, in which a mafioso named Banano said, "Never let people know how you feel." I think that's what she was practicing, and it makes perfectly good sense to me.
JIM LEHRER: Gene Lyons, makes perfectly good sense to you?
GENE LYONS, Arkansas Democrat Gazette: The letters--I mean, to me, this is an exhibit of what I call catch-22 feminism. I mean, you basically are saying that no evidence makes any difference whatsoever; we have to believe or not believe on what we--on our political predilections. I think that's a silly thing to say. Of course, these letters strike people as evidence that she was less shocked and horrified than she effected to be Sunday.
Moreover, I'd say if the White House had set out to discredit her, all they would have had to do was distribute stories that I picked up off Nexis the other day in the Richmond Times Dispatch and the Chicago Tribune about the very strange series of activities following her husband's death, her--the warrant that was sworn out for her for her harassing people who were suing her husband and whom she blamed for his death; the fact that she has--papers have been filed in courts in Richmond charging her with fraud; and the fact that she's now known--is now known to be negotiating--I think the figure is a $300,000 book contract. So all of these things, it seems to me, add into it. Next to them, I think the letters are fairly insignificant.
JIM LEHRER: But if you add all of those together, do you see this as a significant development, as Lee does?
GENE LYONS: Do I see--
JIM LEHRER: You. Do you think that the Kathleen Willey story is a significant development in this whole story of the allegations against the President?
GENE LYONS: Yes. I think it's significance in the sense that for reasons of social class--that is to say Ms. Willey looked like she could have been a member of my wife's book club, and those kinds of women who have supported the President through a lot before and have not believed before, I think were taken in by her performance on "60 Minutes." To me, I'm kind of flabbergasted that "60 Minutes" did less than one half of the story in presenting that unmediated by lots of other information that was already available. The stuff I was reading in the Richmond paper was more than a month old.
JIM LEHRER: Pat McGuigan, how do you read the Willey story?
PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: I think it's pretty significant for a lot of the reasons that have been put out, although I don't let my views on moral issues in particular be driven by public opinion polling. I must say that one of the things that strikes me is that Willey's story about this incident, her stories, if you will, have been relatively consistent, whereas, the President at the time these allegations first began to surface in Newsweek and elsewhere indicated that he had only a vague recollection about the incident, but now, in recent days, I guess it was within the last twenty-four hours, he was saying he had a very clear recollection of the incident.
So if we want to get into dueling scenarios, I think she still gets the better of the argument in terms of the presentation of the information. And this follows the pattern. The pattern is that bad information about the conduct of this man that's our President, particularly his conduct towards women, gets presented, and then in what Howard Kurtz calls the "spin cycle," very quickly we get information trashing these women, and we're in the midst of that cycle now.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see the same cycle, Bob Kittle?
ROBERT KITTLE, San Diego Union Tribune: Oh, I think so. I don't think that there's any doubt that the White House is trying to discredit Kathleen Willey's testimony. And the reason for that is that I think what she has said adds up to a very strong assault on the President's credibility, and it's not just the fact that she is an educated, somewhat of an upper class woman with a lot of credibility in her presentation. It also has to do with the fact that this is--her charges are not being made in a vacuum. They come in the context of the charges that have been made by Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers.
And, frankly, this raises for me some very serious implications for the President's ability to lead down the road. I think there's been a chipping away here at his credibility, and credibility is an intangible thing, and it may not seem to matter much on a day-to-day basis, but when the President needs to rally the nation in a crisis, or when there's an important vote coming, when he needs to gain the country's support, he may find that this chipping away at his credibility adds up to a lack of trust, and, therefore, a lack of support among the American people for its policies.
And we may have seen a little touch of that, I believe, in the rather adverse reaction to the President's anticipated use of force in the Persian Gulf, where suddenly the country wasn't ready to follow him on this course. So I think this--you know, all begins to add up after a while. And we have to be careful because, you know, the President's credibility is vital, and I think Kathleen Willey has chipped away at his credibility.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Cynthia, that Kathleen Willey's chipped away?
CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: Well, Jim, the public opinion polls that you just cited a moment ago show that that hasn't happened yet, although it could happen. And I think it may happen if the public begins to separate the allegations that Ms. Willey has made from the allegations surrounding Monica Lewinsky. They are two very different things. And while I'm reserving judgment about whether or not I believe Kathleen Willey is telling the truth, if she is telling the truth, her allegations are much more troubling than those swirling around Monica Lewinsky.
Whatever may or may not have happened between Lewinsky and the President apparently she has never suggested that the President made unwanted advances. In fact, if you are to believe the apparent tapes that Linda Tripp made, Monica Lewinsky may have had a crush on the President; she was sort of giggly and schoolgirlish about this. But Kathleen Willey made it very clear that the President made unwanted advances, and that's of a very different nature. And I find those allegations very troubling and, if true, very damaging.
JIM LEHRER: Lee, on this public opinion poll basis, not only what you all have said tonight, the editorials and many newspapers today, particularly here in the East, in the New York Times and the Washington Post, were very harsh on the President in all of this, and yet, the polls--the public doesn't seem to share the outrage that so many editorial writers and commentators do. How do you explain that?
LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: Jim, I think that the American people simply want stable government. I think they want somehow to ride through these next three years into the next century, into the next millennium. They don't want very much going on. Bob Kittle was right. They weren't prepared to support strikes in Iraq necessarily because they like this President as long as he doesn't do anything. That suits them fine.
So they don't want disruption; they're satisfied with the job he's doing because they're not upsetting anybody; and while we're on the subject of Kathleen Willey, I would like to respond for a moment to something that Gene Lyons said. He was talking about the Richmond reports about her late night phone calls to business associates of her husband. That was certainly an unattractive and unfortunate thing to do, but she was desperate. Her husband had committed suicide. He had left terrible business problems. I don't think that damages her credibility in this matter. She was simply a drowning woman at that time.
JIM LEHRER: Gene Lyons, do you see a disconnect between the public and the pundits?
GENE LYONS: Oh, yes, very clearly. Everyone that I talked to is fairly disgusted with the media and fairly amazed at the alacrity with which people in our line of work are willing to jump to the worst possible conclusions on the least possible evidence. No, I don't think that harassment business is positive in and of itself. I think charges of financial fraud are more important. I think a $300,000 book contract is more important. Moreover, unlike--and I'm not trying to pull rank here--but I know a lot of women that have known Bill Clinton for a very long time and worked with him. I talked to a woman the other day who tried to rally several of her friends to get together in a living room setting, people who would impress the public as very much like Ms. Willey, and say this is not the man we know; we've known him for 20 years; he doesn't do these things.
But they were afraid to do so. They all said we're all in our 40's; we've got histories; we're afraid of the press, and we're afraid of Kenneth Starr. I might add that I called Starr's office the other day. The crimes that Ms. Willey's husband allegedly committed before his suicide were far more serious than those of Jim McDougal. I asked the independent counsel's office did she seek and did she get immunity. I got a no comment. I still think the public is due an answer on that question.
JIM LEHRER: Now, what crimes are you talking about specifically?
GENE LYONS: I'm talking about embezzling $275,000.
JIM LEHRER: The husband.
GENE LYONS: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: The crimes against him.
GENE LYONS: When Jim McDougal made the bogus loans, he intended to pay them back.
JIM LEHRER: Pat McGuigan, the polls, the public opinion polls don't seem to bear out your views. In other words, they don't seem to agree with you? How do you explain that?
PATRICK McGUIGAN: Well, I think voters often hold jobs like each of us in this panel hold in segments, views that can be described as contradictory but are not really. Mike Barnicle's not with us tonight, so I'll repeat one of his lines from a column we carried a few weeks ago. The country basically trust Bill Clinton with the economy, but we don't trust him with our daughters. And that's the bottom line. And I don't think that's a good enough standard for the President of the United States.
I'm not gloating or anything, but, you know, it's St. Patrick's Day, as was remarked earlier, and you have Pat Ireland and Pat McGuigan in the same place, which is an unusual event, and I think there's some significance to that, and underlying these polls that show approval for the state of our economic life and basic approval for the President's performance in terms of managing the economy, underlying that is this unease with the way this man treats women. It's very interesting what Mr. Lyons said about some women in Arkansas because, of course, we now have all kinds of evidence of other women who reach very different conclusions about what this man who's our president is capable of doing in their presence.
JIM LEHRER: Bob Kittle in San Diego, do you feel your fears are as concerned about the chipping away and the various things of the President's credibility that you are? Are they represented in these national polls as well?
ROBERT KITTLE: Jim, I suspect that they would be represented in the national polls. The opinion in San Diego is not much different than what the national polls show, but I do think throughout all of this, we in the media are awfully close to it, and so we do reach conclusions sooner than the general public. The public right now doesn't seem to see a lot of relevance in the President's sexual conduct, and his governing. Now, that, I think, may change. You know, this scandal is still evolving, and I don't think we can say just, you know, in the 24 hours after Kathleen Willey's testimony on television that it doesn't matter.
I think it can add up over time. I don't really see a lot of that in my view. It may well be a minority view. I don't see our readers expressing a lot of alarm about this. But in the long run I don't see how this can make the President's job any easier. I do think that while a lot of people don't think it matters, a majority of people believe the President's lying. And that's got to take a toll on his presidency over time. Most Americans believe he has lied to us about his sexual misconduct.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Cynthia?
CYNTHIA TUCKER: Well, again, the polls suggest that certainly people thought Kathleen Willey was credible. At least half as many think she's telling the truth as think that Bill Clinton is telling the truth. But they don't think it matters. And I think that there may be an even more troubling conclusion that can be drawn without assuming that either Paula Jones is telling the truth, or Kathleen Willey is telling the truth. We don't know yet. Their statements have not been vetted in the court of law where they will end up probably in May in the Paula Jones harassment case.
It seems to me that it is possible that many Americans just don't think that the sexual harassment of women is very important, certainly not an important enough issue to rock a presidency where the President is doing a pretty good job in his public life. And if that is true, I find that troubling, indeed, especially given the irony that Bill Clinton was supposed to be a good feminist President. If it turns out that he has been at the helm and his conduct has helped create a climate where there is a backlash against women and sexual harassment is just sort of winked at, I think that that will be very unfortunate, indeed.
JIM LEHRER: Well, thank you all five very much.