GOP backs release of Clinton tape Most Americans think airing of testimony unneeded, poll shows

'Public has right to know'

But some in House fear partisan attacks will provoke backlash

September 17, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Most House Republicans expressed strong support yesterday for the decision by Judiciary Committee members to release President Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony, but some in the GOP are wary that their leaders are pushing too hard toward impeachment.

Formal approval of the videotape's release is expected this morning in a closed-door session of the Judiciary Committee, which would handle any impeachment proceedings.

"There is a huge number of Republicans who feel the public has a right to know how this [sex scandal] has unfolded since January," said Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland, who endorsed the release of the four-hour videotape. "If I was an American citizen, I would want to see it."

Even so, there were misgivings in the GOP ranks about whether public release of a video showing Clinton responding angrily to sharp questioning about his sexual activities with Monica Lewinsky would be considered heavy-handed and offensive by voters who might then blame Republicans.

"The backlash I'm afraid of is whether the video will be seen as overkill," said Rep. Michael N. Castle, a moderate Republican from Delaware.

Rep. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who serves on the Judiciary Committee, bridled yesterday at the hands-on role the House leadership is taking and the conflicting advice coming from various quarters of the GOP.

Taking particular aim at House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Graham said: "I don't let Newt drive my train. I don't care what the speaker says I should do."

Republicans are anxiously eyeing polls that show clear majorities opposing both impeachment and the release of more sexually graphic material.

A CBS News poll released yesterday said that by a margin of more than 2-to-1, Americans think it is unnecessary for the committee to release Clinton's videotaped testimony. According to the poll of 450 adults conducted Tuesday, 70 percent of those surveyed said the tape should not be released, compared to 28 percent who believed it should be made public.

Asked the same question by reporters yesterday, Clinton refused to offer advice to the House about release of the tapes. He said that at the time of his supposedly secret grand jury testimony, he expected it would someday be made public. "I think that I knew that the rules were against it, but I thought it would happen."

In a closed-door GOP meeting yesterday, Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, another moderate, asked Gingrich whether release of the tape is necessary. Gingrich's combative response, in which he referred to Clinton as a "misogynist," drew raucous applause: The House would follow the rule that almost everything will be made public.

The videotape's release is vital, most Republicans said, not only to determine whether Clinton lied before a federal grand jury but to see if his demeanor and body language reveal any intent to lie or evade.

"We ought to have the same information as any juror in a court proceeding would," said California Rep. Christopher Cox, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee. "The president's credibility is the issue."

But that did not diminish doubts among Republicans who have long campaigned against the growing coarseness of society, the media and especially the Internet, where much of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's material is being published.

"There are a lot of salacious details [in the backup documents] that do not belong in the public domain," said Rep. Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican and member of the Judiciary Committee.

Graham expressed fears that sexually explicit material would find its way onto the nation's television sets and complained about conflicting advice within the GOP.

He noted that Orrin G. Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, "at one moment is saying [Clinton's] a jerk. The next he's a loveable lout. Gingrich says we're not going to go after human failings, then we are.

"These guys have got to settle down and let us do our job," Graham said.

Democrats continued to accuse Republicans of trying to embarrass Clinton. Some Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee insisted that no more documents be released. Others said they do not oppose the release of the videotape, but that all of Starr's evidence should be released at once.

"What I'm afraid is happening is that the Republican leadership is saying, 'We're just going to do it bit by bit so the president can read a little about it Thursday, a little bit Saturday, a little bit Monday," said Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida, one of Clinton's most vocal defenders on the Judiciary Committee. He called it "a ridiculous situation."

Rep. James E. Rogan, a California Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said yesterday that he expects formal meetings will begin in early October to map out impeachment proceedings.

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