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THE STARR REPORT

Giggles, Gasps as Public Views Report

Reaction: As the Lewinsky saga rolls across America, folks see it as salacious, silly and even a bit of a soap opera. Many say it's too much to know.

September 12, 1998|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a Jackie Collins novel writ large, and when Americans got a load--or more likely a download--of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's sordid case against the president, they giggled and groaned and tried to get comfortable with it.

But by the end of the day, it was still unclear whose, if anyone's, mind was changed by the public talk of private acts and potentially larger crimes.

From a topless dancer in Atlanta to a computer analyst in Laguna Beach, there was evidence of a cultural event--with absolute indifference, utter fascination and too much information.

Sonya Prather, a part-time student and topless dancer, spent most of Friday afternoon mesmerized by television stories about the Starr report. By the time she got to work at Atlanta's Gold Club, she was conversant in its most salacious details.

"[Clinton] is the kind of guy who comes into the club, gets a private gold room and has 20 women dance for him," she said, making a nauseated face. "I don't think he's moral or that his decisions are well thought out." A fallen-away Clinton supporter, she predicts that he will resign.

And Lisa Roden, working the shoe checkout counter at a Pasadena, Texas, bowling alley, south of Houston, saw the Starr report as evidence that a big-shot, yes, even the president, can be just like the rest of us.

Admitting with a wicked laugh that she wants to know the "kind of kinky things he's up to," she vowed not to judge him for it.

"The president is supposed to be a role model, sort of a perfect person, you know? Well, it turns out he ain't no more perfect than the rest of us."

But Oanh Nguyen, 25, a computer systems manager for a Laguna Beach company, was fascinated by the tidbits. He knew the report was on the Web but wasn't paying attention until he heard of Monica S. Lewinksy's claim that the president used a cigar in a sex act.

Back at the bowling lanes in Texas, however, several people were resisting the drama in Washington, instead focusing on news of the rain and floods from Tropical Storm Frances.

"I grew up in a time when your sex life was personal, and I still cling to that notion," said Joyce Coffman, 76, a retired bank teller, watching her granddaughter bowl. "I don't need to know the details that are coming out. It won't change my mind about him. Clinton is a good president. I don't connect what he does as president with what he does with his sex life."

But Hugh Siler, a public relations consultant who was tethered to his Costa Mesa, Calif., home computer all day calling up the Starr report, was particularly disturbed because Clinton "took the oath of office and swore that the laws would be faithfully executed.

"In my opinion," Siler said, "he has failed miserably."

At Wednesday's Cafe on Main Street in Santa Monica--a coffee bar with one Internet port, cafe customers clucked their tongues disapprovingly as they read the one screen. They devoured such new details as the alleged frequency of the sexual encounters President Clinton had with Lewinsky, the number of people Lewinsky told of the affair, including her psychologist.

"Scary," said one.

"Real-life drama," said another.

"Pure soap opera," cooed a third.

One woman put her hand to her mouth and said that reading the report felt like an invasion of privacy, like reading privy details from someone's long-hidden diary.

Deadpanned manager Robin Zielan: "His life's an open book now."

Customer John Frascati was stunned by the nation's obsession with the sex scandal. "Do you want the president to be impeached for having a nice Easter Sunday?" he asked, referring to Lewinsky's claim that one of her encounter's took place that day.

"He's no different than his predecessors in that office, people like George Washington and the others took everything they could get. I think it's one of the perks of the office."

He shook his head: "This nation outlaws sex and allows guns. Go figure."

Those without computers were no less curious. They tuned into television reports. Or they called their public library for information.

"Either that, or they want to know who their congressman is and how to get ahold of them."

When the choice was between the gambling tables at a Sparks, Nev., hotel-casino and taking in the prurient details in the Starr report, some couples split up. Several gamblers reported that their spouses were still in their rooms upstairs, unable to leave their television sets as more details were becoming available.

"He's a man and men are stupid about sex and there's no man more stupid than an older man with a younger woman," said John Studer, a plumber from Sacramento.

Times staff writers John Glionna, Greg Hernandez, Esther Schrader, Megan Garvey and Antonio Olivo in Los Angeles; Tony Perry in Sparks, Nev.; J.R. Moehringer in Atlanta; Thomas Mulligan in New York; and Edwin Chen in Washington; Times researcher Lianne Hart in Pasadena, Texas; and Times correspondents Steve Carney and Chris Ceballos in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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