Diner talk favors Clinton Pete's: Discounting the president's disclosures in sex scandal, most customers want him to concentrate on issues such as foreign policy.

August 22, 1998|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

With the news breaking at home and abroad and his public flogging in the press, President Clinton might take heart from the voices of the people at Pete's Grille at breakfast yesterday.

Along with such things as blueberry pancakes and Belgian waffles, the diner in Waverly serves a mix of people at its long, narrow wooden counter, and the chorus of opinion yesterday was squarely on the president's side -- except for one man.

In the minority was Tim Shields, 31, a Johns Hopkins University researcher. He called Clinton's Monday night speech admitting an inappropriate relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky and attacking independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr too legalistic and "misleading."

"Starr's going beyond bounds, but Clinton almost invited him to," said Shields.

Most others disagreed.

The popular diner in the 3100 block of Greenmount Ave. anchors a part of Waverly that has seen better days, but it attracts a microcosm of Baltimore residents -- black and white, young and old, neighborhood mechanics with their names stitched over their pockets and Hopkins graduate students who like the inexpensive menu.

Conversations touched on Clinton's Monday speech, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's state of mind and the bombing of suspected terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Sudan. People expressed impatience with the domestic storm around Clinton, especially Starr's grand jury investigation, and approval of foreign policy.

Most were eager to close this chapter, and some expressed their opinions more forcefully than others. "Hey, it ain't nothing we need to know," Floyd Maynard, 52, a railroad worker, said of the president's liaison with Lewinsky.

Asked whether he believes the first lady found out about the relationship only last week, he said, "Come on, let's get real."

Bill Price, 54, an electrician, said, "I don't care who he has sex with -- who, where and for what reasons. The stock market has risen over 5,000 points on his [Clinton's] watch. Let's pay attention to things that really matter," he added as he poured pepper onto his fried egg and salt into his hot cocoa.

Foreign affairs are among the things that matter most, people at Pete's agreed. Thursday's surprise bombing of targets in Afghanistan and Sudan was praised as "cool" by one customer and "righteous" by another.

"It's about time we got nasty with people kicking us in the head," Maynard said, referring to the recent bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, which officials pointed to as a trigger for the raids.

By contrast, many said they fear that the media pursuit of the sex scandal has made the United States look foolish to the rest of the world.

Most said their views were not changed by Clinton's confession. That other presidents and politicians have had affairs -- and that Thomas Jefferson might have had one with his slave Sally Hemings -- cropped up in some conversations.

Support for first lady

"Leave the man alone," said Connie Philpot, a 41-year-old bank vice president who was sitting next to Price. "If someone without sin in Congress had to cast the first stone, they'd all be sitting down."

Speaking of Mrs. Clinton, Philpot said, "She's handling this real well."

A woman celebrating her 47th birthday with her husband and two children said the first lady has her moral support. "Personally, I think she's devastated," said Priscilla Ireys of Oakenshawe. "She's given up a lot for her husband.

"He's a pretty good president, but it's too bad he had to conduct himself that way."

Ireys said the Starr investigation has gone too far. "Forty million dollars [the estimated cost] would buy a lot of books for public schools," she said.

Several men said they admired the first lady's public smile. "She's the brains in the family," said Frank Welsh, 66.

The president's speech was "lousy," he said, because "he had a facial expression like he was teed off."

Asked whether they thought the raids on suspected terrorist targets were intended to divert public attention from the Lewinsky affair, along the lines of the movie "Wag the Dog," Welsh said, "Absolutely not. That's bunk."

Craig Wilson of Baltimore County, a mechanic and a Republican who voted for Clinton, said he generally likes the president and said of the first lady, "She's been dealing with it all her married life."

"I have a funny suspicion that when Bill gets out of the White House, Hillary's going to take a walk," said Michael Coco, 39, who brought a Tom Clancy book with him to breakfast.

No one at the diner thought Clinton's confessions should rock the republic. "He didn't do anything criminal, so why impeach him? It's not like Watergate. It's a breach of the marriage &L contract and nobody's business," said Reggie Perry, 35, a cable installer in Randallstown.

"Good guys always get a bad rap," Perry said, laughing.

Fear for presidency

Some, including Johnny Copeland, 37, said they would vote for Clinton again if he could run for a third term. "I think we paid a lot of taxpayer money finding out what goes on behind closed doors," he said.

The main concern of Joseph Glorioso, 77, was whether the presidency would be weakened. "As long as he does his job, I don't give a damn about his off-time. But he should have said something seven months ago," he said.

Behind the counter, a woman smiled and shrugged at the informal political poll. "I hear it every day," said Charmain Sharkey, co-owner of Pete's, as she waited on regulars having "the usual."

Pub Date: 8/22/98

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