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THE CLINTON TESTIMONY

Viewers Greet Clinton Video With Shrug

Reaction: Individual preconceptions seem to shape perceptions of how the president did. That is, among those who cared enough to tune in.

September 22, 1998|JAMES RAINEY and BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The U.S. Congress said the American people needed to see the president testify. TV commentators trumpeted that the nation would be riveted. One newspaper proclaimed: "All Eyes on Clinton."

But as televisions blinked on Monday morning across the nation--if they were tuned to President Clinton at all--most Americans seemed to react with a collective shrug.

Dozens of people interviewed by The Times in an unscientific survey said they had already seen and heard enough about the president's sexual dalliances and alleged lies.

Even for those who did watch, the unprecedented release of a videotaped deposition of a president proved more historic anomaly than watershed political event.

Opponents said Clinton's equivocations and hair-splitting about sex--including his ramblings about the meaning of the words "is" and "alone"--prove he lied. Supporters viewed the president as the victim of a "sexual witch hunt," which he weathered with surprising dignity.

Preconceptions Affect Perceptions

The four-hour-plus, multi-network broadcast apparently did little to change entrenched positions or to resolve ambivalence.

The three major networks and five cable broadcasters could cite the historic significance of the event all they wanted, but the public responded with hundreds of complaints. Some had questions about the sexual content of the questioning; others simply wanted to see their regular programs.

"Any time you preempt a soap [opera] for anything, people are going to respond," noted one network official. ABC described many of the calls as neither pro-Clinton nor anti-Clinton, but rather "anti-media."

But from coffee shops to gyms to waiting rooms, and even to some of the halls of government in Washington, the predominant reaction of the day seemed to be uninterest.

"Is 'I Love Lucy' on? I don't want to hear this stuff," asked Lon Morris, a 51-year-old aerospace engineer from Ventura, as he sat down to breakfast with a friend at a Canoga Park restaurant.

At the Boulevard Cafe near Baldwin Hills, 78-year-old Bill Kay turned his back to the television, declaring: "I think it's a bunch of political [bull]."

Even in the Pentagon mall--through which thousands of uniformed and civilian workers stream each morning--televisions were tuned out and people bustled about their business. At an office inside, one Army officer snorted: "We refuse to watch it."

This is not to say that the televised spectacle of a president being asked graphically about sex and lies was a nonevent. Many people did tune in.

Typically, they found in Clinton's performance something to bolster already long-calcified positions. And the undecided, who were supposed to gain clarity from the public display, continued to be flummoxed by the situation.

At Mid-Valley Athletic Club in Reseda, for example, Randi Rotwein felt extreme disappointment in Clinton, but also in the investigation she feels is hounding him.

"He's a clever enough man--that's why he's president," said Rotwein, an independent, as she marched on a Stairmaster. "He knows how to turn a question around and answer it the way he wants to--but he seems to be squirming. He [created] his own dictionary.'

Nevertheless, she wants Clinton to remain in office and added: "It's such a disgrace that our country is spending all this time and money on a 'sex-watch.' America looks like a bunch of fools."

Even many of those who concluded the president lied under oath remained hesitant to have him leave office. On Monday, some suggested creative alternative punishments: Clinton should not be allowed to raise funds politically, or should be jailed briefly, but without giving up his post.

"I have lost respect for him. He is a liar," said Carol Henson, a Republican and an interior designer, who watched the tape at a Pasadena gym. "I have really mixed feelings. But I think he should probably continue and do the best he can."

Viewer Baffled by Others' Outrage

At the Tavern restaurant in the New Jersey town of Pennington, carpet installer Rich Mosier chuckled as the president wriggled in his seat. "He forgets a lot, don't he?" Mosier quipped to a friend. "Alzheimer's at 55. I think it's the lying that's killing him."

But Mosier, 45, said he is baffled by some people's outrage. "He admitted he did it," he said. "What more do you want?"

With such sentiments widespread, many viewers said they swung emotionally in the president's favor as the questioning grew protracted.

"I'm not a Clinton supporter--I did not vote for him--but I thought he was spectacular," said Barbara Ann Graham, a Republican and owner of an antique shop, Annie's Collectibles, in the city of Orange. "He held his own ground, he was thoughtful and he really got his points across about the persecution he's undergone and how much money this has taken."

'He's Real Cool' Under Pressure

At Texas Southern University in Houston, freshman Elisa Jackson said she had opposed broadcast of the tapes. But a few minutes into Clinton's testimony, she saw her man winning the day.

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