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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

When the Talk of Town Becomes the Talk of Nation

Public: For the first time in a long time, average Americans are partaking in politics--and loving every minute of it.

January 26, 1998|FAYE FIORE and JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — James Rawlings, truck driver, sat over a plate of orange chicken reading the Washington Times sports page this past weekend, not because he wanted to read the sports page, but because his friend Robert was the first to grab the front page, where the headline screamed: "What Did Lewinsky Send to Clinton?"

Having traveled 18 hours on a bus from Hannibal, Mo., for an antiabortion march, they find this whole White House mess repulsive.

But that didn't stop them from toting a tiny TV on the bus, then spending six hours in the lobby of Catholic University, where they are staying, munching candy bars and potato chips and discussing the commander-in-chief's allegedly outrageous libido.

For the first time in a long time, the average American can talk politics and actually enjoy it.

This is a story with all the sex, lies and audiotape of a soap opera--and potential political repercussions of the highest order. It's gossip without the guilt. Serious news that's easy to digest--like scarfing down a box of Ding Dongs and still getting the average daily allowance of vitamins and minerals.

No wonder the entire nation--liberal, conservative, don't bother to vote--is obsessed with the latest sex-related allegations surrounding President Clinton.

"I don't think it matters who you are, blue-collar or white-collar, you're talking about it," said Fred Rohloff, 49, a Mission Viejo resident who visited the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda over the weekend.

"Whether it's true or not," 22-year-old Theo Yih said as she celebrated the Chinese New Year at a school in the San Fernando Valley, "it's an incredible tale."

Now, this is news you can use: Waste a whole night in your pajamas eating ice cream, envisioning sex acts in the Oval Office and come away sounding like a political wonk. Play semanticist, analyzing the chief executive's use of present tense in his televised denial ("There is no improper relationship."). Pull out your Bible and ponder the precise definition of adultery (does oral sex count?). Ponder the pitfalls of life in a techno world (Could he actually have been numb enough to leave messages on her answering machine?). Pepper dinner conversation with phrases like "suborning perjury," pretending you actually knew what it meant before last week.

All across America, people have their brains in the president's boudoir.

"I wonder what Clinton is thinking right now--probably, 'How could I be so stupid?' " Yih said. "All these women are saying he slept with them or had affairs. They can't all be lying."

At her Northridge newsstand, Shannon Ramos was watching newspapers and magazines fly off the rack. Scandal is good for business.

They are kibitzing about it on the running path and in the grocery store, at the gas station and under the hair dryer. It is Topic A around the water cooler, at sidewalk cafes in Venice Beach and in the back seats of taxicabs both inside and outside the Beltway.

"The first thing you have to realize, young man, is all men are dogs," a D.C. cab driver said last week, launching a 15-minute defense of Clinton and his alleged indiscretions--which the cabbie believes are absolutely true, but hardly worth all this fuss.

"Most of my clients were most upset about the lying," said Atlanta hairstylist John Salvadori.

Indeed, a Los Angeles Times Poll shows most Americans are willing to forgive Clinton if he had a sexual relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, the young former intern--44% think he did--but say he should resign or be impeached if he lied about it or tried to obstruct justice. The poll showed Clinton's sky-high personal approval rating is slipping.

"I wouldn't put it past him, but do I care? No," said Keith Donaldson, an MCI business manager eating cheese fries at a Johnny Rockets in suburban Virginia.

"It's nobody's business who he's sleeping with," said Erin Groves of Scranton, Pa., who visited the White House this weekend with three generations of relatives, from 22-month-old niece Caitlyn to Grandma Nixon, who's 80. "Nobody's in your bedroom."

"I care, but what can I do about it?" asked 17-year-old Ahmed Abedy as he slathered mustard on a hot dog in his father's cart on the corner of 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, just one block from the White House. "It'll just roll off. I know it will. He's the president."

Riding the whole roller coaster of emotions, the country is going through this thing with its leader--not to mention the first lady and daughter, Chelsea. People are disgusted, repulsed, frustrated and angry--some at special prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr, some at Linda Tripp--who secretly taped Lewinsky (her friend!), some at the former intern, and some, of course, at the president himself.

There's no shortage of sentiment on the subject. And for a country where many folks can't even name their representative in Congress, they are surprisingly well-informed. The Times poll showed 96% of Americans were familiar with the matter.

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