CHICAGO — As the big-time television pundits grabbed a few hours of sleep before the big-time morning shows, the armchair pundits took over as chief analysts of the presidential apology.
They hadn't been prepped, or fed, or feted in the "green room." They hadn't spent time in make-up. From their homes or their tire store or a bar in Boise, Idaho, they called in to talk-radio programs around the country. And they kept calling, all night long.
Some like Jim--who phoned a Washington, D.C., station at 10:45 p.m. Monday--proffered semi-pro sound bites: "I think there is much less here than meets the eye."
Others like Peter from Cincinnati, who called a Chicago station at 1:44 a.m. Tuesday, struggled to convey the threat of terrorist governments that might seek more secrets about President Clinton's sex life: "He could be blackmailed!" Peter warned. "If a foreign government was aware of things, they could say, 'Hey, we want weapons technology or people are going to know about this or this or this . . . ' "
And so it went.
It seemed the call-screeners let just about anyone through in the wee hours; if a caller was willing to spend 30 minutes--or an hour or two--on hold, they deserved to speak.
Some put forth with great angst and emotion about a trying time in American government, about a loss of faith in their president or serious concerns about the independent counsel law.
"I am a supporter of the president, and I wish he had given this speech months ago instead of the wag-the-finger speech," one woman said in a sad voice. "I am behind him, but not 100% anymore."
The radio hosts, meanwhile, helped ensure that the calls kept coming in by gleefully lambasting the mouthpieces of the other side--whichever side that might be.
Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah--who on Monday was one of the most vocal Clinton critics--"said he felt like he was going to throw up. Well, Orrin Hatch makes me want to throw up," Chicago sports-talk host Les Grobstein railed at 1:58 a.m. "I was in Salt Lake changing planes on Friday, on my way to the Bears game, and the stench of Orrin Hatch almost made me sick."
Sure, there were other places to discuss the Clinton-Lewinsky drama and gain fresh insights in the middle of the night--the Internet, the 24-hour coffee houses. But talk radio, it could be argued, was experiencing one of its finest hours.
Shortly after the "Steve and Johnnie Show" fired up on WGN-Chicago at 11 p.m., co-host Johnnie Putman lamented the endless rehashing of Clinton's address: "The president talks for 4 minutes and 6 seconds, and then Sam Donaldson regurgitates it. Well, thank you, Sam. I heard it the first time."
And then, along with her co-host, Putman began rehashing the president's address, and continued to do so--for six straight hours.
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the former publisher of a Washington newsletter called the "Stan Major Show." In a somber tone he said: "Some of my sources in the White House have told me the most sorry thing . . . is to look into the faces of the young people. They really believed in Clinton."
Talk radio boasts the highest share of listeners of any format in the nation's 25 largest metropolitan areas, with an estimated 10.5 million adults tuning in, according to a study released earlier this year.
Even after the daytime call-screeners took over Tuesday morning, the talk continued boisterously and incessantly on.
"I think the Republicans have enjoyed the sex act between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky more than he ever did," Richard from St. Petersburg, Fla., said on ex-Marine and conservative pundit Oliver L. North's show, "Common Sense Radio."
A former infantry officer named Jim told Rush Limbaugh--host, as he likes to point out, of "the most listened-to talk-radio show in America"--that Clinton could have benefited from military service. "He would have learned some valuable maxims," Jim pronounced. "One, that the maximum effective range of an excuse is zero meters."
In Long Beach, a woman shared her view of the president with listeners on KFI-AM (640): "Another disappointing, lying [pejorative you can't use in the newspaper or on the radio, according to the Federal Communications Commission]."
In Los Angeles, a man declared: "When the most powerful man in the world hits on a 21-year-old girl, that's pretty close to being a pedophile."
Presidential critics toed the line of slander. Presidential apologists flirted with hysteria.
And no one had to give their last name.
Times researcher Edith Stanley in Atlanta and correspondent Julia Scheeres in Los Angeles contributed to this story.