THE RESIGNATION QUESTION
August 26, 1998
So far, 25 newspapers and magazines have called for President Clinton's resignation. How do editors make the decision to run such opinions, and whose point of view do they represent? Terence Smith poses these questions to four editorial page editors.
JIM LEHRER: The resignation question and newspaper editorials. Our media correspondent Terence Smith has the story.
A RealAudio version of this report is available.
August 19, 1998:
A discussion of the latest coverage of the Starr investigation.
August 19, 1998:
Two members of Congress discuss whether President Clinton should resign.
Ask Terence Smith about the media's coverage of the Starr investigation.
August 18, 1998:
A look at the media's coverage of the Starr investigation.
August 17, 1998:
A special package of coverage on the president's testimony.
August 17, 1998:
What is the grand jury's role in the Starr investigation?
August 13, 1998:
What impact will Starr's investigation have on the presidency?
July 30, 1998:
Should Clinton address the public about the Lewinsky matter?
July 28, 1998:
Ken Starr makes an immunity deal with Monica Lewinsky.
July 27, 1998:
Ken Starr subpoenas the president to testify in front of a grand jury.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the Starr Investigation.
A Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial.
The Daily Oklahoman calls on the president to resign.
San Diego Union-Tribune
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Indeed I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong.
TERENCE SMITH: Since President Clinton gave that speech ten days ago, a rising chorus of newspaper editorials across the country has been calling for the president's resignation. So far, 25 newspapers and magazines have joined in.
Several newspapers call for resignation.
Just today, the lead editorial in the conservative Daily Oklahoman demanded for the third time that the president step down. The editorial read in part: "Clinton's lies assail the legal system he is sworn to defend." The Oklahoman endorsed Republican Robert Dole in 1996 and has criticized Clinton's policies from the outset.
But even more striking, the Atlanta Constitution, which has endorsed and supported the president in the past, now suggests that he should go-"the case for resignation is strong." The paper's editorial column argued, "if Clinton cared deeply about the nation and the fate of his own programs, he would hand the keys over to Vice president Al Gore."
Other papers withhold judgement.
Other papers have stopped short of calling for resignation. The Minneapolis Star Tribune declared "the president has let people down--" but it also questioned whether independent counsel Ken Starr has-"taken his portfolio far beyond the intention of the law creating his office."
From California the San Diego Union-Tribune labeled the Clinton Administration "a devalued presidency." But they withheld judgement on resignation saying, "a definitive decision cannot be reached until Starr completes his report and sends it to Congress."
TERENCE SMITH: Now, we turn to the editorial page editors of four of the newspapers in question. Susan Albright of the Minneapolis Star Tribune; Robert Kittle of the San Diego Union Tribune; Patrick McGuigan of the Daily Oklahoman; and Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution. Cynthia, it is remarkable for your paper, given its support of the president in the past, to call for his resignation. Tell me what led you to it and whether there was great debate about it among the members of your editorial board.
"This is probably one of the most difficult decisions we've made over the past four or so years."
CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: There was quite a bit of debate. This is probably one of the most difficult decisions we've made over the past four or so years. But while it is true that we have been very strong defenders of the president's polices, very strong supporters of the policies, and also have suggested until very recently that any judgment should be reserved, especially about impeachment, until credible evidence was introduced, it is also true that back in January we said that if the president had, indeed, done three things, if he had had an affair with this intern, if he had perjured himself in the deposition to Paula Jones' attorney, and if he had suborned perjury, he should resign. And so while we have been strong supporters of the president's policies, we also have a set of principles that include the idea that the president is not above the law. And so this is in keeping with those fundamental principles.
TERENCE SMITH: Did you check that sort of a decision, move with either your editor or your publisher?
CYNTHIA TUCKER: Yes, yes. I talked to my editor. This decision was actually arrived at over several days, because you will recall that in the week leading up to the August 17th speech, there were leaks coming out of the White House which said that the president would, indeed, admit to an affair with Monica Lewinsky. So we had several days to discuss how we were going to respond to that. And that meant, of course, that two of the conditions that we had laid out had been met, that the president had had this affair and that he had perjured himself. Now he still claims he hadn't technically perjured himself, but we disagree. And so, yes, about 1 o'clock in the afternoon on the day of August 17th, I talked to my editor and told him that we were inclined toward strongly suggesting that the president resign.
TERENCE SMITH: Bob Kittle, your paper, has generally been critical of the president's polices and, in fact, has endorsed his opponents in the last two races, and yet, you hold back from that move. Why?
"In our view it's simply premature to make a decision on whether the president should resign until we know all of the facts."
ROBERT KITTLE, San Diego Union Tribune: Well, that's correct, Terence. We've been very critical of most of the president's agenda, but I think we have to make a decision here based on all of the facts, and in our view it's simply premature to make a decision on whether the president should resign until we know all of the facts. And as we stated in an editorial that you quoted from, an editorial which we were harshly critical of the president, we said that we cannot make a definitive decision on what should happen until we've seen Kenneth Starr's report and all of the facts are out. We did suggest that perhaps a censure would be appropriate, based on what we know now, but even there we didn't rush to a judgment that that is how this ultimately should be handled. We simply want to see all of the facts before we make such a very critically important decision of calling on a president to resign. That's not something that any president would ever do lightly. It's obviously only happened once in our history, and so we want to see all the facts. We want to know everything that's here, see the whole picture, before we make that judgment.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, if it's premature for you, is it premature for Cynthia Tucker and the Atlanta Constitution?
ROBERT KITTLE: Well, I think Cynthia Tucker and the Atlanta Constitution have every right to make a different decision than we do on that, and that's simply our view of how we should approach this question. Cynthia and the editor board of the Constitution believe they know enough now to make that determination, and that's up to them. For us, we want more of the facts first.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Pat McGuigan, you were one of the first, your paper was one of the first to call for his resignation-last January, in fact. What led you to make that decision so quickly.
PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: Well, the first time I heard the allegations I believed them based on examining the president's behavior over many years, following his career very carefully, not only as president but before that as governor of the state next to us. The first time that I heard these allegations and read the stories bringing them to light I believed them, and I had previously discussed with our publisher the possibility of encouraging the president to resign. In fact, back in 1997, we wrote an editorial in light of some of the campaign scandals and the early reports of the problems with the illegal foreign contributions. I had suggested the possibility of doing this, and he just encouraged me to wait a while. When the Lewinsky stuff broke, we went ahead and made our first call for him to resign, because we believe it's the only way that the country can get back to a substantive policy discussion, is for somebody else to be in the Oval Office.
TERENCE SMITH: And you do wait for the go-ahead from the publisher?
PATRICK McGUIGAN: Oh, sure. About 99 percent of the time I think it'd be fair to say I make the judgment calls one by one on a day to day basis, along with my colleagues. But on something this substantive I discussed it with him before we launched this particular editorial theme, if you will.
Arriving at a difficult decision.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Susan Albright, how do you arrive at this sort of a decision? Your editorial page has, of course, been generally sympathetic to the president and his policies, and you've yet to make such a call. But how do you-what's the process-how do you get there?
SUSAN ALBRIGHT, Minneapolis Star Tribune: Well, we use the same process on such an issue as this as we do on others. We have a number of people on the editorial staff who meet every day. We talk together. We respect each other's opinions. We test our own opinions against each other's, and in this case we don't think resignation is appropriate at this time, maybe not at any time, but we haven't gone there yet in our discussions. I think-
TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask you-is there a threshold that has to be crossed for you to consider that appropriate?
SUSAN ALBRIGHT: Well, I'm sure there is, but I think that's hypothetical at this point. I think we're with a lot of people in thinking that while we're I would say profoundly disappointed and in some cases disgusted with this behavior, I think as Laurence Tribe said in the New York Times this morning, a lot of people see this as being disproportionate, that resignation and impeachment, given what the crimes, if you will, are, that this is about an issue where perhaps Ken Starr shouldn't have gone, about something people think is personal behavior, and about something that ordinary people might see as a gray area, morally speaking, that we do need to wait, we do need to hear the facts, see more, let the process happen, and not assume that our congressional representatives won't rise to the occasion and do what's best.
TERENCE SMITH: Cynthia Tucker, I wonder how much people pay attention to editorials generally and particularly one like this. What kind of a reaction have you had?
CYNTHIA TUCKER: Actually, I don't think people pay attention to a single editorial, although it often the case that local radio talk show hosts pick it up, start talking about it, and it creates an echo effect, and people are more aware of it than they would ordinarily be. And I certainly think that that has been the case in this instance. Our editorial has been the occasion for some surprise because, generally speaking, we have been such passionate and vigorous supporters of the president's policies. We have had writers and-letter writers and callers who have both agreed and disagreed in Atlanta-president Clinton still has some very vigorous defenders, who disagree with our decision. I want to make one distinction, however, on the topic of resignation. I find myself in the peculiar position, the unusual position of agreeing with something that Newt Gingrich said. He made a distinction between resignation and impeachment. We did the same in our editorial. We don't believe that as yet there is enough evidence on the table that suggests that impeachment is appropriate, but we see resignation differently. Newt Gingrich said resignation is a decision of honor and impeachment is a decision of the law. And so we believe that the president could make the decision to resign, but impeachment is quite another matter, and we don't yet see enough evidence to see that impeachment is appropriate in this case.
Whose voice is represented in an editorial?
TERENCE SMITH: Bob Kittle, when someone reads an editorial in your paper, any paper, whose voice is this? Is it the publisher, the editor, the staff, who is it?
ROBERT KITTLE: It's the collective voice of the editorial board, Terence, and that primarily reflects the viewpoint of the publisher at our newspaper. An editorial does not reflect, of course, the views of the reporting staff of the newspaper. We on the editorial board are separate from the reporting staff, we deal in opinions, we express our opinions. Reporters have an obligation to do their best to be as objective as possible. I dare say that many-if not most-of our reporters would disagree with many of the conservative editorials that we write, so the editorials in our newspaper are not signed, because they represent the collective wisdom, more or less, of the editorial board, and the publisher of our newspaper, Helen Compley, is the chairman of the editorial board.
TERENCE SMITH: Pat McGuigan, when you talked before about this issue, resignation, you led up to the point of the other remedy, if you want to call it that, which is being discussed in Washington, impeachment. Any position on that?
PATRICK McGUIGAN: Well, we're not calling for it yet, and we see, much as Cynthia just pointed out, you know, there's different actors, if you will. We don't conduct on the editorial page a court of law, nor are we members of Congress. We express an opinion of the facts and the information that we have so far, and have expressed a point of view. But, as Cynthia pointed out, there are other actors, and I think that the speaker's view is probably a positive one, it's probably the right one for him to be taking right now. Let's wait until we have the document in our hands, that is, members of Congress, before they make their decision. But from the outside looking in, if you will, we think there's more than enough evidence that the president has been hurt so severely by the accumulation of these issues-and not just this sexual misbehavior-but the FBI Files problem, the Travelgate problems-the campaign finance problems-on and on-that for him to continue in office is going to take us all through a very wrenching few months. You know, some people make the case that from the strictly conservative Republican perspective it's better let this guy linger and continue to be damaged. I don't buy that, because of the damage and the harm that I think it's going to do to the country if he stays in office.
TERENCE SMITH: Susan Albright, a final word perhaps about how you plan to look at these next few months, including what we all anticipate to be a report from Ken Starr about the actual charges.
SUSAN ALBRIGHT: Well, I think all of us on my staff feel that this is a time when we should be seeking perspective, historical perspective, constitutional perspective, and waiting for what the charges are that Starr will bring, before we decide what we think ought to happen. This, I think, is a good time for that. It's a good time-unfortunately, the television is putting forth more a parade of partisans-but I think it's a time when you need to step back as the Congress, members of Congress will need to do, step back and look at it from a distance, look at it-try to separate those threads that we feel-the threads of emotion and our thoughts-test our thoughts-read wise people, listen to wise people, and then see what happens.
TERENCE SMITH: Stand back and look, in other words.
SUSAN ALBRIGHT: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: Thank you all very much.