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THE CLINTON TESTIMONY

Viewers Greet Clinton Video With Shrug

Reaction: In Orange County and around the Southland, preconceptions seem to shape perceptions of how he did--among those who cared enough to tune in.

September 22, 1998|JAMES RAINEY and LISA RICHARDSON 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 seen and heard enough about the president's sexual dalliances and alleged lies.

For those who did watch, the unprecedented release of a videotaped deposition of a sitting 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 and aplomb.

In Orange County, most people expressed either support for the president or the sentiment that, however immoral his behavior, it is the concern only of his wife.

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

The three networks and five cable broadcasters could cite the historic significance of the event, but the public responded with hundreds of complaints. Some had questions about the sordid sexual content of the questioning; others 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."

'I Love Lucy' a Welcome Respite

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

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

In Santa Ana, television repairman Henry Schultz worked on a set at Goldenwest T.V. while President Clinton's picture and testimony rang out from one of the few sets that seemed to be whole.

As the president finished saying he did not believe that oral sex constituted sexual relations as it had been legally defined to him, Schultz shook his head.

"That's unbelievable that he doesn't think it's sex," Schultz said. "I'm not surprised, though. He's a good talker--they don't call him 'Slick Willie' for nothing."

In the antique shopping district in downtown Orange, Barbara Ann Graham of Annie's Collectibles had the opposite reaction. She turned on the president's testimony as soon as she awoke Monday and found herself in Clinton's corner.

"I'm not a Clinton supporter--I did not vote for him--but I thought he was spectacular," Graham said. "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."

Across the street, 86-year-old Jennia Winslow was strolling with a friend after watching the president for several hours. The videotape of his grand jury testimony infuriated her--creating a deep anger at Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, not the president.

"That Ken Starr has gone too far," Winslow said. Clinton is "getting a dirty, dirty deal. His sex life, like everyone else's, is between him and his wife."

Winslow said the media have exaggerated the issue.

Much Media Ado About Nothing?

In fact, the media were criticized as frequently as either Starr or Clinton by viewers Monday morning.

"I watched this thing, and it really wasn't anything; it was old news," said Paul Gonzalez at a 7-Eleven in Santa Ana. "The news made it seem like a big deal; it wasn't."

Instead of fireworks, tension, perjury or passion, Gonzalez said, he saw politics as usual.

At Hualatronics karaoke and audio systems in Garden Grove, Steve Hua drew a sharp distinction between Clinton's performance as president and the Monica S. Lewinsky affair.

"The country has got to put the personal matters behind," Hua said. "I still trust him because the economy is progressing; there are jobs, and, as a president, he's been very good."

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.

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