MAKING HIS CASE
July 30, 1998
President Clinton's decision to provide videotaped testimony for Kenneth Starr's grand jury has raised the question of whether the president should address the American public on the matter as well. Margaret Warner and guests discuss President Clinton's options.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, four perspectives on the prospect and perils of President Clinton going public from two Newshour regulars, presidential historian Michael Beschloss and journalist and author Haynes Johnson, and two pollsters, Democrat Mark Mellman and Republican Frank Luntz. Welcome, gentlemen. Should the president, Mark, speak out publicly now?
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
July 29, 1998:
The President agrees to provide videotaped testimony to Ken Starr's grand jury.
July 28, 1998:
Ken Starr makes an immunity deal with Monica Lewinsky.
July 28, 1998:
Law professor Paul Campos discusses the Lewinsky immunity deal.
July 27, 1998:
Ken Starr subpoenas the president to testify in front of his grand jury
July 21, 1998:
A roundtable discussion on Chief Justice Rehnquist's decision not to interfere with the subpoenas of secret service agents.
July 16, 1998:
The Clinton administration appeals to Chief Justice Rehnquist to keep secret service agents from testifying before the Starr grand jury.
July 15, 1998:
Can the Justice Dept. force secret service agents to testify?
July 4, 1998:
The Supreme Court refuses to hear from Kenneth Starr.
July 1, 1998:
A report on the question of executive privilege and the Starr investigation.
June 29, 1998:
The Supreme Court upholds attorney-client privilege in the Vincent Foster case.
June 8, 1998:
The Supreme Court hears arguments in the Vincent Foster attorney-client privilege case.
June 4, 1998:
The Supreme Court refuses to expedite matters in the Ken Starr investigation.
May 1, 1998:
Dan Balz discusses the new charges against former Justice Department official Webster Hubbell.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the Starr Investigation.
The Washingtonpost.com's library of legal documents in the Starr investigation.
Mr. Mellman: "The American public is not interested in the discussion of the president's sex life."
MARK MELLMAN, Democratic Pollster: I really don't think he should. I think the American people have said very clearly they don't want to hear more about this. As Mike McCurry said, they do want the president to focus on doing his job and working on education and health care reform. They don't want to hear more about this issue. But frankly we're down to a point where the discussion is really about the president's personal sex life. The American public is not interested in the discussion of the president's sex life; they don't have the stomach for that kind of discussion either.
MARGARET WARNER: Frank Luntz.
FRANK LUNTZ, Republican pollster: There's a bigger picture. There's more questions that needed to be answered than that. But the fact is the public's anger with the politicians right now has subsided a considerable amount, and this frustration that they have with Washington is not as strong as it was three or four years ago. It's not good for the American people to question the integrity and the decency of the president, and it's not a positive development when these doubts exist. There have been times in the past, beginning with FDR and our historians, who know more about this than I do, when presidents have come forward, admitting mistakes, or challenge them as the case may be, but address the American people head on. And I think if we to instill some sort of confidence, separate partisanship, but confidence in structure, we need the president to say something.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you see it?
Mr. Beschloss: "If the president can clear his name, he should do it...."
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, if the president can clear his name, he should do it, and probably should have done it in January of this year, if that were possible. You look at a case like Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon spent the last 18 months of his presidency under an enormous cloud. It's impossible to say that he was anywhere near the president that he could have been had he not had the shadow of Watergate, and it actually paralyzed him in dealing with the Russians and in dealing with energy, inflation, other very big issues in 1973 and 1974. And until Bill Clinton, I think, is able to somehow dispel this cloud, people are going to be looking at a speech he's giving and thinking on one hand about the subject of the speech and on the other hand about what happen with this crisis. And until that's ended, he's not going to be the kind of president he's capable of being.
MARGARET WARNER: So do you think now is the time to do it?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think whether it's now or after the testimony or after the Starr report, all that probably is a difference of about six weeks. It should really be as soon as possible.
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: Yes, I think that he certainly shouldn't go on television and talk about his sex life. The American people does not want that; they don't want to hear about that. They do have a need to hear from him. And it seems to me this is now the time for the reasons that Michael has said and Frank has said where he has to connect with the public, restore his-the faith, whatever is lost here, this is the time for him to do it. And it would seem to me he's going to give that grand jury testimony--after that, a very dignified presidential address and talk about look, I've got two more years left as President of the United States. Here's what I choose to do with it; it can be a mea culpa-he's not taking off his clothes in public-but say this is what I'm going to be doing for the next two years. And I think the ultimate jury here is not the grand jury. It's not even legal. It's not even the Congress, an impeachment. It's the American public, and it is his place in history as the leader of this country.
FRANK LUNTZ: And he can do it so well too. I mean, he is an excellent communicator. He has this ability to relate. If I were advising him, I would probably tell him to do this. And-
MARGARET WARNER: So, you mean, in other words, you're saying you think even in partisan terms from his perspective it's better, why?
FRANK LUNTZ: It's better because he can look people straight in the eye and he has the ability, I would agree, to put it behind him, and if he doesn't put it behind him, then we're going to have two years of questions.
MARK MELLMAN: With all due respect, this same discussion occurred when this incident first developed and we had a State of the Union speech, and everybody sat around and said you know, the president has to address this in the state of the union, if he doesn't, it'll be a fundamental failure. How can anyone watch this speech unless this issue is brought to the fore, and you know what? The president gave a bang-up State of the Union address. Not one person sitting in that audience said afterwards, boy, I really risked a discussion of Monica Lewinsky. And I think what-the fundamental fact is the more the president or anybody else talks about this issue it distracts public attention, it distracts his attention, it distracts the Congress's attention, and the real agenda that the president's interested in and the real agenda the American people are interested in.
Mr. Johnson: "Down the road I see a prospect of humiliation, whatever the truth is in this case."
HAYNES JOHNSON: Mark, you're certainly right about the State of the Union, and that was-he did-he saved his presidency that night, and I would say Hillary Clinton saved it too by going on the air-no, seriously, I'm not making this as a joke, but saying we all have differences in our marriage; we know each other; we trust each other; we love each other. Fine. And now it's different. He is-this is not going to go away. Down the road I see a prospect of humiliation, whatever the truth is in this case. Those tapes are going to be played some day or those 20 hours of the Monica Lewinsky tapes, you can bet, and sure as the world is here that you're going to hear this, and I think the humiliation over the last two years of an erosion, I have no idea what that's going to do to public attitudes, but I can't see that as being a good situation for a president.
MARK MELLMAN: Haynes, I think it would not be a good situation if there was that kind of erosion. I just make two points. First, the president has spoken on this, spoken very clearly. All he can do is repeat the same thing he said before, and, that wasn't very convincing to too many people. There's nothing more to be said at a certain level. The second point I would make today as it was when this crisis first broke the fact is the overwhelming majority of the American people-65 percent approve of a job he's doing. They want him to keep on doing that job-not get sidetracked into the public discussion of this.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. What about that point, that, in fact, this has worked well for him and apparently well for the country in the last six months, at least in terms of, you know, economic indicators or whatever, it has not crippled his presidency, what about that point, why change it now?
Mr. Beschloss: " He didn't run for office to be a passive president who was paralyzed by a scandal.... "
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, because Bill Clinton came to office in 1992 and look at the acceptance speech he gave in New York in 1992 at the time of the Democratic convention. He said Mr. Bush, if you're not willing to act, I will. He didn't run for office to be a passive president who was paralyzed by a scandal and unable to speak with the kind of force that most presidents do. And the problem here is that those same polls say that an awfully large number of Americans doubt what the president is saying about this matter. It's awfully hard to separate that from what he tells them about other things. And the problem is that the power of the presidency is not very much in the Constitution. What it really is, is the ability of a president to persuade Congress, to persuade the American people to do things that they should do but might not want to do, his ability to do that right now is severely limited and we're very lucky that we're not in an economic or international crisis that would demand that.
MARK MELLMAN: On that point, Michael, the reality is this president is saying to the Congress don't have a tax cut that's going to raise the Social Security Trust Fund, and Republicans in the center are saying, you know, you're right, we'd better follow the president's lead on this. The president put together an Irish peace accord. What evidence do we have that this president's ability to govern has been diminished. I just don't see it.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask-well, go ahead.
FRANK LUNTZ: And I think that you are in danger of being too partisan here. If I were a Democrat-and it would probably upset my parents deeply-but if I were, I would want this president to have a legacy of something that I can be proud of. I would want people when they mentioned his name to do so and sit up straight and feel very comfortable with it. It took years for Republicans to be able to mention Richard Nixon's name in public.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Many still can't.
FRANK LUNTZ: To a great extent, but they can do so with Reagan. I know that there are Democrats who desperately want to be proud of the president as a person, not just as a president. And if he does not come forward and make this kind of straightforward, into-the-camera statement, the fact is, Mark, all that they will remember of him are the jokes.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Haynes, take this, give us a little historical perspective here, a little more about what history tells us about how the American people respond and what the perils are for a president in coming forward at a difficult time like this and saying more, whatever it's going to be, than they have before.
HAYNES JOHNSON: The American people have always responded when a leader goes before them and says this is what I need to tell you. I don't care what the occasion-whether it's a crisis-Ronald Reagan and the Challenger-or Bill Clinton-and when he spoke at the Congress the other day on that ceremony for the slain policeman, it was wonderful. It was eloquent and touching and the whole country saw that. He was speaking as the leader of the United States on behalf of these young men that died-
MARGARET WARNER: Have there been any times where that failed?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes, sure.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes. Richard Nixon tried a little bit but didn't try very much. A lot of the language that we use these days about this kind of thing comes from the Nixon period. Nixon would say we'll try a limited hangout, which is he would tell the partial truth. At one point he began an exercise and enterprise that the people in the Nixon administration refer to as Operation Candor, we'll give the impression of essentially revealing everything we know. And the result was that everyone laughed. I was a college freshman in the fall of 1973, and I remember when Richard Nixon used to go television, I used to watch it with about 60 other freshmen, and he would say, I had no prior knowledge of the Watergate matter, we would all laugh out loud. That severely impairs a president's ability to act. Contrast that with Ronald Reagan. At the height of the Iran-Contra Affair, he appointed a commission. It gave its report. He gave a speech saying I accept the responsibility. He was able to act very boldly for his last two years.
FRANK LUNTZ: And as a Republican, how could I recommend that my clients criticize him if he comes forward and says, I made a mistake; it was wrong; I wanted to protect my wife and my child-how could you possibly attack that?
HAYNES JOHNSON: You know-
MARGARET WARNER: Let me-Mark, Mark Mellman-let me ask you this. Go to the point that we've all been saying, but that Michael was mentioning, that it seems to imply that there's a point-the public is with a president for a very long time, but then a point can come when they are no longer with him or when the credibility is no longer with him. When does that point come?
Mr. Mellman: "For most Americans this is not a crisis."
MARK MELLMAN: Well, I'm not sure we know when it comes. I think what we know for certain at the moment is that it hasn't come yet. When Richard Nixon was paralyzed at the end of his presidency, his approval rating was around 25 or 30 percent. Bill Clinton's approval rating is around 65 percent. This may be a crisis for those of us inside the beltway and those of us at this table, but for most Americans this is not a crisis. This is not an issue that they want to hear more about. We may want to say more about it. The American public doesn't want to hear more about it.
HAYNES JOHNSON: But the problem is that this is an unprecedented situation. You're certainly correct about today, where he stands in the polls. But it is also true that this thing is going into a new era now where all of these scandal accusations are going to get grubbier than ever and at some point if the president-there are no good choices-if the president chooses silence, that's going to be very difficult. If he chooses to speak, that's high risk beyond measure, much greater than that State of the Union message. This would be the highest wire act of an American president ever, not to be unseemly about his behavior, but just to say I need to clear the air. But it seems to me that's the age in which we're entering right now. This period coming up soon is at a time of maximum peril for him and his presidency.
FRANK LUNTZ: And we have to also recognize the impact that it will have on the next generation of Americans. The year 2000 is coming up, and we're very focused on our kids. Education is an important issue. What message does the president send to those who are 15, 16, 17 years old, old enough to follow politics, but not necessarily old enough to be able to judge what is proper and improper?
MARK MELLMAN: There have been at least 10 times that I can remember in the course of this episode that people have said, this the moment of maximum peril; this is the moment when things are changed; this is the moment that something is really bad going to happen if the president doesn't do X or Y or Z, and you know what, that time has not yet come, and I think that history-brief history-ought to teach us to be relatively modest about the predictions we make in terms of what's going to happen to this president's public image in the future.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. That has to be the last word.
HAYNES JOHNSON: We haven't made the predictions yet-dire predictions yet.
MARGARET WARNER: Dire predictions later. Thank you both, all four very much.