January 22, 1998
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot discuss the latest scandal to rock the White House.
MARGARET WARNER: And thatís syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. Mark, how perilous is this for the President?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Itís perilous. I donít think thereís any question about it. This rises to a different level, as has been said earlier. I donít think itís Watergate, though. I mean, having been rebuffed by both the FBI and the CIA to suspend civil liberties in the country, the Nixon White House basically tried to overthrow the American people by using the federal government. I means, this, if it does rise and those allegations are substantiated, is a crisis, an enormous crisis of character, as has been said, of bad judgment, but itís not a constitutional crisis in the same way that Watergate was. I mean, it has the same effect upon the presidency.
PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: If Monica Lewinsky comes in and says that what she said on those tapes was delusional, nothing was true, then this problem--this story goes away. If she corroborates, I think, even half of what are on those tapes and if she corroborates with Ken Starr and says itís true, much of itís true, then I think the President has an enormous political problem and maybe legal problem, but he has an enormous political problem, Margaret. This is not like a simple case of adultery. Itís a 21-year-old White House intern. Itís in a way the very definition of a boss exploiting from a position of power someone who is easily swayed and relatively young. So I think--I donít know how--I donít think thatís going to sit very well with an awful lot of Clinton voters, even many Democrats.
MARK SHIELDS: I think there was a tacit agreement between Bill Clinton and the American electorate in 1992, and it went something like this: We know that as governor of Arkansas you probably had behavior that we would find unacceptable. But weíre willing to overlook that. And thatís why the Whitewater never caught on; thatís why Paula Corbin Jones and Gennifer Flowers never rose to the same level. But now youíre going to be President of the United States, and the President of the United States is more than the most important public employee. The President of the United States is the leader of the government, yes, but heís also the leader of a nation. And so that, I think, thatís what gives it a greater gravity, and I do want to follow up briefly on Paulís point, and that is everybody in Washington knows somebody, their niece or somebody elseís niece or cousin or their daughter or son or whatever, who comes to Washington at the age of twenty-one or twenty-two eager and is just blown away by the fact--
MARGARET WARNER: Stars in their eyes.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes--that a member of Congress even asks them to get a cup of coffee. So the disproportionate power thing--but I think before we have the hanging, we probably ought to have a trial.
MARGARET WARNER: Jim and his group just talked about the speed of it and the speed with which this mushrooms. Paul, how--give us an idea of what we may even see in the next few days. How much control at this point does the White House and the President even have over how this thing unfolds, politically now Iím talking about?
PAUL GIGOT: I donít think they have any. I mean, I think that theyíre just flying blind like anybody else. The danger for the President in this if she had become say a "he said/she said" affair. Okay. You end up with the President, I think, entering a kind of tabloid environment. Heís entering the grounds thatís usually inhabited by Marva Albert or Mike Tyson, frankly, with saturation coverage, wall-to-wall Geraldo. Everybodyís doing--the latest facts come out, like the O. J. evidence, where then you had the legal expert hashing it over and the political experts hashing it over. We had never had an environment of politics where a president had been subjected to that. And this could go right through the Paula Jones trial in May, which would be, which could make the O. J. trial in this kind of environment look like it was, you know, just your average city court case.
MARK SHIELDS: I think--one point thatís kind of overlooked in this whole thing, there had been a lot of rhetorical overkill earlier about Janet Reno. If Janet Reno had been Richard Nixonís attorney general, said some on the right, Richard Nixon would still be president. Janet Reno acted expeditiously and quickly. When Ken Starr went to her last week and asked for the approval to broaden this investigation, she gave it just like that, and I think thereís a little display of integrity. One can argue with her judgment, or one can argue with this, but I think thereís no question about Janet Renoís integrity. She knew the President of the United States was going in for that deposition on Saturday when she gave that approval on Thursday.
MARGARET WARNER: Going back to the President for a minute, yesterday, you know, in his interview with Jim he talked about putting this in a box. And you talked about this last week. We talked about this last week, Paul. In the past, past scandals, the White House seems to have operated almost on two levels with press office and lawyers dealing with the scandal and the President dealing with substance. Do you think the White House can do that in this?
PAUL GIGOT: Theyíll have to at some operational level do that. Thereís no other choice. I mean, you have to be able to meet with visiting heads of state when they come in. You have to be able to give your State of the Union address next week. But thereís no question that the attention that the White House, the resources and the attention span of the White House will all be focused on this. I mean, Robert Rubin, the Secretary of the Treasury, gave a speech on the IMF bailout this week. I can tell you, Iíll bet you nobody in my bureau read it.
MARGARET WARNER: At the Wall Street Journal.
PAUL GIGOT: I mean, you know--
MARK SHIELDS: Cancel my subscription.
PAUL GIGOT: Everybody is focused on this. So itís very hard. And then, of course, the Presidentís own credibility is really--his ability to sell anything is, I think, even if thereís no legal culpability here, even if it is simply the political problem of seducing a 21-year-old intern, that is really going to damage his credibility and diminish him as the President if itís true.
MARGARET WARNER: And, you mean, until itís cleared up. Mark, youíve been talking to Democrats on the Hill. How is--
MARK SHIELDS: I have. And thereís no question. I mean, whatís fascinating is to watch the two parties. The Republicans are being taciturn statesmanlike, following the advice of Frank Luntz, one of their leading pollsters: Donít say a word. You know, whatever you do, just let it--let this accident continue. Democrats on the Hill have been equally mute, I mean, or are at least circumspect in their support, because there is a body of evidence in the past of suggestions that the President--this is behavior that is not beyond the realm. This isnít Harry Truman theyíre making the charge about. So thereís kind of a "wait and see" attitude. And I think the President is the only person who can be his principal defender. I think it isnít the only--if, in fact, the testimony tomorrow goes strongly against him, then you may see--
MARGARET WARNER: You mean when Monica Lewinsky goes in.
MARK SHIELDS: When Monica Lewinsky goes in and gives her deposition tomorrow and takes the Fifth or whatever, or even recants and says, yes, I did, and Iím in love with him and I hope heís going to leave the presidency and marry me, or something of the sort, if that were to happen, then I think what you would probably see from the part of some Democratic supporters of the President is offensive against her. Thatís always been sort of the modus operandi, is to discredit the person making the accusation.
PAUL GIGOT: Any Republican who needed to get a memo from Frank Luntz to know to keep quiet about this should be drummed out, is in the wrong line of business. Of course, youíve got to let this play out. The action is with Ken Starr. The Republicans should just keep quiet. The Democrats have a real problem, and they have been very loud in their silence so far because of precisely what Mark says. A lot of the Presidentís past is coming--converging here to make the press skeptical and Democrats wary. And that hurts the President too.
MARGARET WARNER: There was some suggestion, very briefly, Mark, from some people at the White House today that maybe--the President even said, well, we want to come out and give you more answers. Is there any--is there anything for the President in making another statement?
MARK SHIELDS: Oh, I think, I think the President will. I mean, I think--I donít think thereís any question. I mean, I think he understands that. Heís always been persuasive in the past. Weíll recall press conferences where he answered questions about allegations in the Ď96 campaign, and we all stood in awe of it. I mean, this is a tougher assignment, make no mistake about it. But, I mean, Bill Clinton is not--based upon anything I know about him--is not going to tuck his tail between his legs and just slink off-stage. I mean, he will--he will battle for this job. Heíll battle for this position, and heíll battle for his legacy.
PAUL GIGOT: Everything we know about Bill Clinton says he will fight this with every fiber of his being. He goes down swinging; if it gets to that, he will fight.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thanks, Mark and Paul.