Sex seizes, and holds, public eye America snored as Whitewater bored, until tapes titillated

October 05, 1998|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Like a houseguest who won't leave, the Clinton scandal lingers long past the point that everyone has tired of it. Many Americans would be happy, polls indicate, if not another word was said about the president's already excruciatingly examined dalliance.

So apparently aliens are buying all the Starr Report books and making it a best seller. No one, and no one anyone knows, is watching the television coverage, yet ratings are way up. And surely the thousands of postings about the scandal on Internet discussion groups are the work of a single spam artist.

"It's just like O. J. [Simpson's trial]," said Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University. "People are watching, but they're embarrassed they're watching."

It's become the scandal people love to hate, the car wreck on the side of the road that can't be turned away from, the talk that everyone professes to ignore yet somehow manages to hear and spread.

"We're embarrassed that we're interested because it's about sex," said West, the director of Brown's John Hazen White Sr. Public Opinion Laboratory. "We're used to making fun of the tabloids, but now the whole society has gone tabloid.

"Essentially, the People magazine mentality of Hollywood is now taking over Washington. Whitewater didn't attract attention, campaign finance didn't attract attention, it really took sex to get people to pay attention."

Despite loud protestations that the media have overplayed the story, many are watching the TV broadcasts, buying newspapers with special sections reprinting grand jury testimony and evidence and logging on to the Internet for the latest details.

While not quite in the range of prior consuming interests like the Simpson trial or the gulf war, the scandal has drawn millions of viewers to the 24-hour cable networks, which have been endlessly dissecting it.

"I think people are emotionally exhausted by it and they're weary of the story, but it is the fate of the presidency we're talking about," said Howard Polskin, a spokesman for CNN, where the top-two-rated broadcasts of the year have been Clinton's four-minute address to the nation on Aug. 17, and his four-hour taped testimony that aired on Sept. 21.

Public yet to decide

The scandal's drumbeat hasn't been constant, of course. There was the initial flurry after the news broke in January that a one-time intern named Monica Lewinsky claimed to have had sex with Clinton, and he denied it. In subsequent months, interest in the story ebbed, except for the occasional leaks from the grand jury proceedings as independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr called witness after witness. But since August, when Clinton testified and later addressed the nation, followed by Congress' release of Starr's finding on Sept. 11, the scandal has roared back to front and center.

Part of the reason the story has demonstrated such staying power is the way news has come out irregularly, in small leaks of information or huge dumps of documents from Starr's office. Also, some believe, people are following the scandal and talking about it as a way of sorting out their feelings.

It's become a running dialogue: Who is the villain? Who is the victim? Should he stay, should he go? And why is Hillary still there?

"I think public opinion is still quite fluid," West said. "A lot of new information is still coming out."

In the meantime, people continue to chew on the subject -- at home, in the office, while they're getting their hair cut.

"Ninety percent of the talk is about this," estimated Laurie Schroeder, a hairstylist at the Lola Jones salon in Mount Washington.

Schroeder's feelings have evolved since the news first came out in January, and she was one of several women in the area asked by The Sun to comment. Back then, she said it would be a shame if Clinton were to fall for simply having had sex rather than for a more important issue like Whitewater.

"At the time, I didn't think he should be ousted for it, but now it's clear that he lied," said Schroeder. "In January, if he had just said he had sex with her, he could have saved us all of this and we would have just gone on. Now, though, I think he should resign."

End is nowhere near

With more documents expected to be released this week, the story will continue to deepen as more details are learned about other figures in the scandal, like Linda Tripp and Betty Currie. And, depending on whether Congress opts to hold impeachment hearings, the political aspects of the story will continue to unfold. In other words, the story is nowhere near ending.

"People want this to be over, and they're annoyed at the media for covering it. But the press is telling us this is a historic moment, this is unprecedented," said Diana Owen, a Georgetown University political scientist who studies public opinion. "So you feel you're not a good citizen if you don't watch it. It's being billed as your moment in history."

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