September 21, 1998
In yet another unprecedented day in Washington, Congress released -- and most networks aired -- President Clinton's four hour appearance before Kenneth Starr's grand jury. But what does it all mean for the president? Five guests discuss the videotape and it potential impact.
JIM LEHRER: Now some overview reaction and analysis from NewsHour regulars Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal; journalist and author Haynes Johnson; and presidential historian Michael Beschloss; plus Tom Oliphant of The Boston Globe; and Joan Hoff, professor of history at Ohio University.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
Listen to audio excerpts of the President's videotaped grand jury testimony.
September 18, 1998:
Shield and Gigot analyze the partisan struggle over the release of grand jury evidence.
September 18, 1998:
How is the world media covering the Lewinsky matter?
September 17, 1998:
A discussion on the videotape debate.
September 16, 1998:
Senator Daschle discusses President Clinton's problems.
September 15, 1998:
Two members of the House Judiciary Committee debate releasing President Clinton's videotaped testimony.
September 14, 1998:
A discussion on the media's coverage of the Starr report.
September 11, 1998:
The Starr report and White House rebuttal.
September 11, 1998:
Mark Shields and Paul Gigot debate the potential impact of Kenneth Starr's referral to Congress.
September 11, 1998:
Two former federal prosecutors examine the legal issues presented in the Starr report.
September 10, 1998:
What is the constitutional basis for impeaching a president?
September 9, 1998:
Kenneth Starr drops off his case to the House.
September 3, 1998:
Four former senators discuss whether the president should step down.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of Starr investigation, the White House and Congress.
The House Judiciary Committee.
Examining the political impact of the testimony.
Paul, what happened today in general? What was this happening all about and what is your assessment of it?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, Jim, I'm astonished, after viewing the tape, that the president agreed to testify at all. It seems to me he didn't help his case very much. I mean, the viewers can take away who want to believe the best about the president the sense of personal humiliation that he felt, the sense of persecution that he felt. But on the question of perjury, I don't really think he helped himself, and I think, in fact, he probably hurt himself by the way he parsed language so finely and seemed to be a man who was really striving with all his might to insist he's telling the truth but not tell it.
JIM LEHRER: So you think this was a bad day for the president? He didn't help himself; he hurt himself?
PAUL GIGOT: I think he hurt himself. In fact, I think he made it more likely that he's going to be impeached if he sticks to this story, because the more he insists that he has not lied to the grand jury, the more a lot of members of Congress are going to feel that they're going to have to do something, and impeachment is a real option here, to vindicate the law.
JIM LEHRER: Tom Oliphant, your overview.
TOM OLIPHANT: That's not what I'm hearing from Capitol Hill, or from the White House this evening, Jim. What I think this was, was not a transforming event. We keep waiting for one; we keep hoping that there will be some testimony, some piece of evidence, some event that will resolve this. And nothing ever quite seems to rise to that standard. And, as if we're like Sisyphus, trying to roll an evidentiary boulder up a hill, and every time one of these big events comes, down the hill goes the boulder again. Democrats were emboldened this afternoon by the president's performance; Republicans were infuriated; but most people who are of two minds about all of this got nothing that indicates we're at all closer to a resolution of this that everyone can support.
JIM LEHRER: What's your own view of it?
TOM OLIPHANT: My own view is that if you can discount this ridiculous buildup that occurred before the videotape was released, that was Clinton on television. It wasn't a mad man. He was forceful at times; he can be amazingly convincing at times. At other times he can split hairs like the most fanatic cleric. But that was Clinton. And you can like him; you can hate him; you can be in the middle of that, but I don't think that was an unusually different character that the country saw today.
Mr. Johnson: "It was a giant Rorschach test for everybody in America."
JIM LEHRER: Joan Hoff, was that Bill Clinton that was --
JOAN HOFF: I think it was Bill Clinton in that it was boring TV, but I think it was a credible performance by him. It might have been a bad allergy day for him. He was coughing and sniffing at the beginning. But I think to the average American, who might have been home and able to watch this, they wouldn't have paid much attention simply because he wasn't saying anything terribly dramatic, terribly angry. The questions from the attorneys weren't antagonistic, to my way of thinking. And so basically, it was a boring, credible performance, I think, that he gave today. But I think he really was addressing the American people more than the grand jury. And he had some themes, I think, that were quite important that we might want to touch on a little bit later.
JIM LEHRER: So you think he knew that that videotape that was that videotape machine that was running was eventually going to lead to what happened today?
JOAN HOFF: You bet. I really think so, because if you look at the themes that he was persecuted by an illegal team of lawyers who were in an illegal suit, if you look at the fact he was stressing that he never engaged in sexual harassment, the fact that he was stressing obviously that he'd never committed perjury, what he's doing here was setting the stage for his future, that is, future civil suits against him, but in particular I think he wanted the American people to believe he was a victim of a team of lawyers and even associated the Starr investigation with the Jones lawyers. So he was really, I think, wanting to get those three ideas across.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes, what's your assessment?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Jim, I had the feeling watching those four hours, it was a giant Rorschach test for everybody in America, maybe in the world, because and how we saw those splotches of ink blots splashed across our screen, we all would come at it differently, those who hate Clinton will hate Clinton; those who hate Starr will hate Starr; those who are worried about sex will say, oh, it's boring. As a matter of fact, he may have made sex boring today in this case. The whole thing and I think when it really came down to the end, we all came out of it with our own conceptions. After all, we've lived with this story in an intimate detail as no other in our entire history. This has been drummed last week it seems like 10 years ago, we had the 445-referral report with all of these details about
JIM LEHRER: Are you telling me it was only last week?
HAYNES JOHNSON: It was only last week, Jim, believe me, and then next week we'll have somebody else, and here we are but having said that and I listened I was fascinated by it we've had here at what Paul said he thought it hurt Clinton. I would say I thought it helped Clinton. I agree with Joan Hoff, and I agree with my distinguished Sisyphus I like that allusion pushing it up literary allusion here. But I think that it really did in the sense it didn't save him. But I think it helped him that he seemed responsive. It was not the over-kill grammatically saying this was going to be the bad Clinton this was Bill Clinton angry, violent, flaming red, forcing his finger, shouting, blowing up, as he has done in the White House to everybody who's worked there at one time or another then it subsides the eruption subsides; that wasn't there. He didn't walk out. He didn't scream. He didn't get yes, he got frustrated, angry, but it was sharp. And so I don't know how much it helped it didn't hurt him and I think he probably helps helped him.
Mr. Oliphant: "The real sound that I think was audible today was air going out of a bad trial balloon."
JIM LEHRER: Tom, where did all those reports come from? They were all in the newspapers this weekend, that he showed him storming out of the room and was screaming and doing all that?
TOM OLIPHANT: All of us, Jim, who were involved, in general, in this called politics I think can tell when people are shoving a story a little bit more than it deserves, and I thought at the end of last week we saw some classic illustrations of this. I thought the fears expressed by Democrats were excessively worded and made this out to be a disaster right around the corner; I thought you could tell you could almost sense the anticipatory glee in many Republicans as they pushed this thing forward to be released today. Why today what was so important about today? So many times when people push stories, what happens is deflation. And the real sound that I think was audible today was air going out of a bad trial balloon.
JIM LEHRER: Michael, did you hear air going out of a trial balloon?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: What I heard was one of the strangest experiences I've had, Jim, and you know, I think the moment it really came home to me was when one of the prosecutors said something to the president like referring to Ms. Lewinsky but, Mr. President, she said she loved you, and I sort of wondered what planet I was on you know studying the history of the presidency for a long time, it was not a moment I ever expected and also at the beginning to see the president in the dock replying to possibly criminal charges and talking about his sex life and looking almost like a frightened, errant schoolboy; that's not a scene we saw in presidents, especially during the Cold War. But, you know, by the end of the four hours I had a very different reaction from one that I expected, and that was that, as much as I've got a lot of problems with the way that this videotape came out, I think that this was actually a very good tool for us Americans and also for Congress in trying to reach a judgment on Bill Clinton in this episode. Take a look at the other two scandals in the presidency of the last generation. Richard Nixon was never put in a situation like this. He attended a few press conferences very few that last year and finally was left to be interrogated about Watergate by none other by none other than David Frost in a program that he was paid for, hardly under oath. Ronald Reagan was asked questions about Iran-Contra by members of the Tower Commission that he appointed but wasn't interrogated under oath until after he was president. I think for Americans to take a look at what they saw today is going to be very helpful in their reaching a final conclusion, and one of the best developments I think of the last eight months has been that although there have been a number of moments in this scandal that looked as if this was the time that Americans would essentially close their minds, Americans have been very careful in allowing each piece of evidence to gather, and I think they're still keeping their counsels.
JIM LEHRER: So you would disagree with Tom then? You think this was a momentous event in this saga today?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think it was, certainly in the history of the presidency, and one more building block, as we all make up our minds about what really happened and whether this is something that should cause Bill Clinton to be thrown out of office.
How is it playing in the court of public opinion?
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Paul, back to you on this, you've heard what everybody else has said, that what we essentially saw was Bill Clinton at his best, at his worst, but Bill Clinton. Would you disagree with that? Did you see anything or hear anything today that really stunned you or surprised you, either in his body language or in his real language?
PAUL GIGOT: No, except that they were it was Clinton in a kind of exaggerated form, out-sized form. He was under so much pressure at times that he when they asked some of the most invasive questions, he really kind of clinched up in a way that you wouldn't see him in a normal news conference, or in a in a speech. It was almost as if he was taking body blows. I mean, he really it struck me that he was surprised by some of the questions. So
JIM LEHRER: You said earlier that you think that this could ensure impeachment proceedings and possibly even impeachment. Why do you say that?
PAUL GIGOT: I say that, Jim, because while I agree with my colleagues that this by itself isn't a transforming event in this case, it did give the public, as Michael suggested, a chance to assess how much the president was really trying to tell the truth. And some of the lines he used to explain that he didn't commit perjury, well, were you alone with were you lying when you said you weren't alone with Monica Lewinsky it depends on how you define alone. I mean, these are going to go down in history, along with some lines from Nixon. And I think the legal question of perjury is going to be very important to the members of Congress when they're going through this, and I don't think he helped himself on that point, because his legal defense against perjury is not politically defensible.
JIM LEHRER: Joan Hoff, if the bottom line here is possible impeachment or a push toward resignation, or something like that, do you think this event today is going to influence that?
JOAN HOFF: I don't, because I don't think the ultimately impeachment or the vote to have an impeachment investigation will be determined by legal definitions of perjury. I think it's an historic document because we've never had a president on videotape before for this purpose, and I think the American people will have to make up their minds as they did and as I think Congress did 25 years ago, with President Nixon. And that was basic underlying charge of all three articles of Impeachment was that he had lied to the American people, and Nixon didn't do it under oath, as Clinton apparently has, and consequently, that's the question I thin before Congress and the American people, do they believe that he lied and broke the public trust? If so, then that's impeachable, whether it's indictable, or whether it's a crime. And I think that's what this will help the American people make up their minds about. I think we did see him being evasive, splitting hairs in the present and past tense about what is or causes sexual arousal. It is and consequently I think they will make up their minds much more simplistically and outside of all this legalese did he break trust with the American people Lincoln once said that if a president loses the public trust, nothing is possible when he has it, everything is possible.
A call to the Hill.
JIM LEHRER: Michael, how do you feel about the importance of this in terms moving Tom's bolder it's another bolder I'm talking about the bolder the resolution up or down the Hill?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I don't think it's going change sentiment on the Hill very much, and I'd be very surprised if it changes public opinion very much. And I would not have expected to think that as we began this day, but you know, Jim, one of the things that we're trying to gauge is this: I think very few people would argue that the evidence against Bill Clinton is of a breadth and a momentousness as the evidence of -- against Richard Nixon during Watergate whether they like Clinton or not and one of the things that Americans and members of Congress are going to have to decide is whether the kind of things that we've shown, that we've seen, in which he may be guilty, show a president, although they may be linked to one episode, show a president who was not fit to carry on in office. And the more we see of his mind set, the way he responds to questions like this, I think the more that all of us can make that judgment.
JIM LEHRER: So you would agree with Joan Hoff it's less a legalistic question than it is an impression question, an overview question?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think that's right. And since this is not as broad and expansive a conspiracy as we saw in Watergate, impeachment may turn on that question.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. What do you, Haynes, in terms of what this how this could affect the outcome here?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, I don't think it's going to be decisive, Jim, but I do think it's an impression that's very very important in how people ultimately judge this. Walter Lippman had that great phrase, we're all captives of the pictures in our heads. We think the world that we see is the world that really is, and it isn't. But we all have impressions of Bill Clinton and we know about his trimming on legalisms and, as Paul says, the business of not being alone, is oral sex not sex or all these questions we've gone through but I think it also is going to be very, very tough now. This may harden positions on either side. Those that are sympathetic to the president will say, this is not an impeachable offense; this is not high crime or misdemeanor; this is not what Alexander Hamilton was talking about, or what the founders were talking about when they debated the impeachment clause and put it in the Constitution 211 years ago, so I think we're right in the middle on this one.
JIM LEHRER: Tom, there was also excuse me I know you're about to say something and I'm going to prevent you from saying it by asking you another question but there also in the buildup, there was a lot of talk about potential backlash against the Congress, against Starr for all of this. Do you perceive that happening?
TOM OLIPHANT: Zippo on the prosecutors. The questions are understandable. Zippo on maybe a little on Congress because of the buildup, but what I think is certain now is that the odds of another appearance by the president have gone up greatly. There was a trial balloon floated around here yesterday to the effect that the president ought to go up to the House Judiciary Committee and do this in front of the people who initially will decide his fate. The people in the White House close to the president who believe he should do that have had their case strengthened immeasurably by what happened today.
JIM LEHRER: And do it before
TOM OLIPHANT: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: I mean, right tomorrow?
TOM OLIPHANT: Almost like demand it. I'm coming up whenever you want.
HAYNES JOHNSON: What's stunning about where we are this is the video electronic agethis is all playing out before talking about images, impressions and whatever you see is going to be played out in television, and it's going to be in the living rooms of America, and this will be decided passing on to the Congress.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Joan Hoff, gentlemen, thank you very much.