Airing the video tapes didn't change many minds . . .

September 22, 1998|By Richard Roeper

GOD BLESS the United States of America, and God bless television.

At about 10:30 a.m. Central Standard Time on one of the saddest and strangest mornings in this country's history, I had a presidential picture-in-picture thing happening on my television. Not since O.J.'s white Bronco chase and the NBA Finals in the summer of 1994 have we seen such a bizarre juxtaposition.

The main image yesterday, courtesy of about a dozen different channels: President Clinton on videotape, perspiring to a

nervous sheen and swigging from a can of Diet Coke, while answering questions about Monica Lewinsky losing her temper upon learning the president was alone in the Oval Office with Eleanor Mondale.

The inset image, carried solely on C-SPAN2, the network of the nerds: Mr. Clinton live at the United Nations, talking about the threat of international terrorism, telling the assembled leaders, "Each time an innocent man or woman or child is killed, it makes the future more hazardous for the rest of us . . ."

Even though the videotaped testimony took place very recently -- on Aug. 17 -- Live Billy looked about three years older than Videotaped Billy.

Of course, it's been a rough month for the president -- and for the country.

It would be stretching it to say the whole country was watching Mr. Clinton's videotaped testimony yesterday, but most of us did have access to the one-camera spectacle, either through our TVs or via surreptitious Internet webcasts on our computers at work.

Heat, not light

With the camera never swiveling to show us anything other than the president as he played with his reading glasses, quaffed copious amounts of soda and water, and used sweeping hand gestures to make his points, it was almost like watching one of those websites devoted to chronicling one person's life. Call it or some such thing.

What we saw was alternately riveting and revolting -- that is, when it wasn't boring beyond belief.

The questions about neckties and dresses and boxes of cherry chocolates, the graphic discussions about the definition of sexual contact, the sometimes testy exchanges between Mr. Clinton and various henchmen for Mr. Starr -- these discussions were already bizarre and chilling and ridiculous and unnecessary when we read about them.

Watching the dialogue play out on TV didn't do much to enlighten or inform -- nor was it even all that titillating, considering that during various segments of the testimony, all you had to do was click around the dial and you'd find, among other not-for-children offerings: Sally Jesse Raphael doing a show called "Gorgeous Women Who Love Fat Men," featuring overweight gentlemen in bikini briefs pawing at their relatively tiny significant others.

Jenny Jones chipping in with, "You Think You're So Hot, But a Model You're Not," a show with bosomy, scantily clad, tattooed women parading around while the audience rated their looks.

And the great Jerry Springer weighing in with "I Confess, I Cheated!"

You wonder how Tom Brokaw could keep a straight face while telling viewers much of Mr. Clinton's testimony "will be inappropriate for younger children. You may want to decide whether or not they should be in the room."

Or even in this country.

Then again, Mr. Clinton did look like a character in a "Saturday Night Live" skit as he put on his reading glasses to deliver that prepared statement about his "inappropriate behavior" with Ms. Lewinsky. Perhaps a few unsupervised children across the country found him on TV and thought, "Oh goody, it's story hour with the president!"

Dirty talk notwithstanding, I'm not sure how many adults, let alone children, stayed with the broadcast for the duration. Like -- most courtroom testimony, Mr. Clinton's appearance was stultifying for long stretches, as he rambled on and parsed away, often providing much more information than was required. I would think millions of viewers gave up at some point, figuring they could see all the highlights on the inevitable orgy of network specials and expanded newscasts.

For the record: There were no questions about Whitewater, no questions about fund raising, no questions about the White House travel office. It was all sex and gossip, all the time.

A witch hunt

At the end of the day -- as the talking heads like to say -- did this videotape change anyone's mind about whether Mr. Clinton should resign or be impeached, or if we should move as quickly as possible to close the door on this sordid and shameful witch hunt?

I doubt it. My hunch is that those who think Mr. Clinton is a lying criminal who should get on the helicopter to Arkansas pronto will still believe that, while those of us who believe Kenneth Starr's investigation of Whitewater has mutated into an insane and ugly monster will continue to wonder when the madness will end.

Richard Roeper is a Chicago Sun-Times columnist.

Pub Date: 9/22/98

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