February 6, 1998
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot cast their eyes West to examine how the rest of the nation views the developing White House scandal.
PHIL PONCE: That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
An overview of the White House crisis.
February 6, 1998:
The people of La Crosse, Wisconsin react to the White House scandal.
February 5, 1998:
Reaction to Kenneth Starr's press conference.
February 2, 1998:
Washington Post reporter, Dan Balz, discusses the Starr investigation .
January 29, 1998:
A look at the media frenzy surrounding the Starr investigation.
January 28, 1998:
An update on the White House crisis with Dan Balz.
January 26, 1998:
Our presidential historians discuss the importance of President Clinton's State of the Union address.
January 26, 1998:
Experts debate the role of the independent counsel.
January 23, 1998:
Mark Shields and Paul Gigot discuss the the political issues surrounding President Clinton's alleged affair.
January 22, 1998:
The legal implications of President Clinton's alleged affair.
January 22, 1998:
Presidential historians and experts put the brewing crisis in perspective.
January 21, 1998:
President Clinton responds to charges that he may have had an affair with a former White House intern.
May 27, 1997:
A discussion on the ramifications of the Paula Jones case on the office of the Presidency.
January 13, 1997:
Paula Jones's case goes before the Supreme Court.
An exploration of presidential leadership: Character Above All
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the White House and legal issues
The Shields and Gigot index page.
The Washingtonpost.com's coverage of the crisis.
Paul, what was your reaction to what the voters in La Crosse, Wisconsin, were saying?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, given the president's high approval ratings and I'm not surprised, they seemed to like the fact there's a good economy going, there's--you have a nice run--they're satisfied with the state of the country, and they don't want the president run out office by a press frenzy that's sometimes runs off a cliff or two before. But I would not--but I would point out that last point, which is if the president can be shown to be guilty of a crime, or if there's some evidence of that, they might change their minds. So that still is the danger for the White House as this plays out.
PHIL PONCE: Mark, your take on La Crosse?
Beyond Washington, no rush to judgment.
MARK SHIELDS: Two points. First of all, the people of La Crosse interviewed, much like the American people, have been much more reluctant to come to a judgment on this than have we in Washington. They've given the president the benefit of the doubt; they've weighed the information. There's been no rush to judgment, which we certainly, I think, here have been prone to do. And I'd say that secondly, it drives home the point this is not a constitutional crisis or a legal crisis; it's a political crisis. And if Bill Clinton is showed to have abused power, it will not be in the pursuit of punishing his political enemies, or suspending civil liberties, it'll be in the pursuit of personal pleasure. And I think that takes on entirely different, rather than a constitutional crisis.
PHIL PONCE: Paul, in the first few days of the story, I mean, there was a sense among some people that they were really smelling blood. How is the president doing now, would you say?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I don't know who was smelling blood.
PHIL PONCE: People were using the "impeachment" word and--
PAUL GIGOT: Yes. And that was all a mistake. I don't think Mark or I used the word, the "i" word. Maybe Mark did.
MARK SHIELDS: The "i" word.
PAUL GIGOT: Look, it settled into a process that's being debated at two levels. The president is fighting this out politically, and that's an open process. But Ken Starr is pursuing a legal process which is, by law, a necessity secret. That gives the president an enormous advantage. He can make the case politically. He has the Oval Office, the grandeur of that office going for him. Ken Starr can't say very much. So when the press does its job and ferrets out leaks from that process, it's just snippets. And the White House has been very astute in really jumping on that to try to make its political argument that somehow whatever Ken Starr does is tainted and suspicious, and it certainly doesn't hurt the White House that they can play and throw in with Ken Starr the evil media the public doesn't much trust or like anyway.
How well is the president's strategy working?
PHIL PONCE: Mark, how about the president's strategy, particularly this new seeming offensive against leaks, do you think that's a good idea from the president's standpoint strategically?
MARK SHIELDS: Strategically, I think first of all you have to look at the first week there was--you're absolutely right in your question of Paul, that there was a sense the president was in big trouble. There were a number of people, a number of network commentators who said he was going to be out of office in a week. The second week there's a sense, well, he dodged that bullet; he's okay. Peter Hart, the analyst, said this isn't I-80, isn't Interstate 80 going across Kansas, it's not straight--it's Lombard Street in San Francisco, and we're going to have curves and turns and back and U-turns and hairpin turns. And I think that's what we're going to see in this story. I think Ken Starr maybe only has legal recourse; he's certainly shown an office that leaks like a colander. I mean, there's question about it. And it's available. It's there. And I think that Bill Clinton and the Democrats in the White House supporting him have pounced on something that's available. They want to divert attention. You don't want to look at the substance of his story. You want to look at the source. I mean, that's--I think that's probably predictable, but I don't think there's any question that Ken Starr has given him the opening, and there's a willingness in the American people. Wall Street Journal polls showed by a margin of two and a half nearly that they thought Ken Starr was conducting a partisan prosecution, rather than acting as an independent counsel.
PHIL PONCE: Paul, how about the president's stance of deflection, where, for example, today he refused to characterize the relationship--if any--that he had with Monica Lewinsky? Is this working for him, where he says "No. Can't talk about it."
One solution to the independent counsel: fire Ken Starr.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, so far it is working for them. For example, most people, we end up talking about the leaks and not the substance of the stories. And the White House, itself, you noticed, isn't denying the facts in these stories; it's denying some of the interpretation of it. It's mostly trying to deflect. I think it's been a very effective strategy. It's not unheard of. It's been used before, used very effectively for a long time when Spiro Agnew, remember, Nixon's vice presidents, called the press "Washington elites," and "mattering nabobs of negativism." And it was very effective for a while, but ultimately the facts undid it. There's an irony here. You know, when it comes to Ken Starr, the president has a remedy. If he thinks that Ken Starr is really guilty of the things that his lawyer now says he is--namely breaking the law, suborning perjury for witnesses, trying to intimidate witnesses--he can fire him. Under the law he can fire him, and, in fact, if it's--if he believes that, he should fire Ken Starr. But if he does that, he has to pay a political price because there will be an uproar. So it's so much easier and deft to demonize and vilify Starr because you create a political atmosphere. So whatever Ken Starr presents something to a House Judiciary Committee, as he probably will at the end of this, it appears tainted and hard to go after if you're--
PHIL PONCE: Now, switching gears in the time we have left, what is your assessment of what all this is doing to the president's ability to sort of prepare the country for a possible attack against Iraq?
Is America caught up in scandal and caught off guard for war with Iraq?
MARK SHIELDS: The country is unprepared. I mean, the country is in favor of an attack on Iraq, but there's been no preparation by the Congress. I think that both Speaker Gingrich and Majority Leader Lott have acted irresponsibly, laying down the marker that you're going to get Saddam ave acted irresponsibly, laying down the marker that you're going to get Saddam Hussein. But I think the reality is beyond that, that we have a country right now that is unprepared, unprepared to go to war. The idea of taking out Saddam Hussein, going into Baghdad, is absolutely ludicrous. It's self-delusional. You want to commit a quarter of a million, half a million American troops. I don't see anybody talking about that. We saw what happened in Somalia when 18 American fighting people were killed and the appetite for combat or involvement, certainly was immediately satisfied.
PHIL PONCE: Paul, we're almost out of time, but your take on that.
PAUL GIGOT: I don't think the president has prepared the country for why we might bomb and what the goal of bombing is. Is it just to send a message? If it gets--if it's just to get the inspectors back, will it actually accomplish that? There's no evidence based on the last several months. And the other showdowns we've had with Saddam, but it will accomplish that goal.
PHIL PONCE: Gentlemen, thank you both very much.