PRESIDENTIAL CRISIS: `This is an X-certificate president. We know it, but we want more, more, more'

A Nation Watches
Click to follow
The Independent Online
"THE TAPE has just been released to Congress," the car radio intoned flatly. "It will start to be played to the rest of us in about 10 minutes' time." "Bah", exclaimed the cab driver. "This is an X-rated President! We know it all, but we just want more, and more... Sure we'll be watching it."

He, in fact, would have been listening rather than watching, in the comfort of his giant, battered Washington taxi, cruising the streets of a capital quieter than usual for a term-time Monday morning, but otherwise utterly normal.

In offices and homes, televisions were switched on, even though a bare 19 per cent of Americans had said they would watch. But switching on and watching are often different things in a country where so much television is treated as wallpaper.

In Washington, the political hub of the nation, there was a sense of life slowing down and streets perceptibly emptying for those vital hours.

In New York, where Mr Clinton was in town to address the UN General Assembly, the bustle and the gridlock were as frenetic as ever. The stock market took another precipitate dive in apparent anticipation of Mr Clinton's testimony.

On the other side of the American continent, far from the capital's famous beltway, in what could be described as Monica Lewinsky country, there was typically more bombast. "Distasteful. Disgusting. Embarrassing," were the terms most people seemed to be using to describe the Clinton videotape. The sense of revulsion, though, did not stop them watching at least part of the spectacle with grim fascination.

"It's pathetic," said Brad Nye, who runs an Internet business forum. "I watched some of it and it was just humiliating for a man who has done great things for this country. I don't intend to see any more."

So far from Washington, most people seemed resistant to the idea that they should alter their daily schedule for a slice of the President's embarrassment on the screen. On Los Angeles West Side, ordinary life did not appear to be unduly interrupted by the latest bombardment of the Clinton- Lewinsky scandal. The traffic was no heavier or lighter than usual for a Monday morning, and restaurants and car washes reported business much as expected.

Establishments that usually keep the radio on as background noise kept their equipment tuned to their regular stations. Bill, Monica and Ken Starr were not about to ruin anybody's breakfast.

That did not mean people were not aware of what was going on. Opinions were volunteered more freely than fudge brownies at a tea party. Whether people were for or against Bill Clinton, most felt obliged to register disgust while airing their very precise views on what was being broadcast.

"This is distasteful but necessary. They should just get him [Clinton] out of there as quickly as possible. I have to admit I'm pretty tired of the whole thing. I couldn't watch any more because I had a breakfast date and I'm kinda relieved," said Shawn Spearman, who runs an upscale children's furniture store in Brentwood.

But a hardened minority all over the US was boycotting the whole event on the basis that it had veered way out of control. Those with children were especially wary. "I don't want to watch it. It's too embarrassing," said Dawn Lachance, a nanny. "I don't want to watch Clinton go through this. If pertinent information emerges from this, I'll find it out from my friends or from tomorrows papers."

And the media in general were the focus for many peoples wrath.

"This isn't about morality, it's all about ratings and selling magazines," said Brad Nye. "This is the People magazine mentality which is crippling our society."

Some were vitriolic about the degree to which the Lewinsky scandal had pushed out other news. A front-page story in The New York Times about the gross intelligence errors that led to the US bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory last month got next to no attention.

By the time the four-hour and 12-minute spectacle was over, a sense of national puzzlement seemed to prevail. "Not as bad as expected," was a common refrain from the voting public. Was this what all the fuss had been about?

In the first few hours, the nation's ever-voluble professional pundits were unusually reticent. Stocks recovered from a severe drop after the nationwide broadcast of the Clinton testimony was less damaging to him than feared. The Dow Jones industrial average ended up 37.59 points at 7,933.25 after roaring back from a loss of nearly 185 points. "Wall Street was expecting something much worse, but that did not happen," one Wall Street analyst said.

A former White House chief of staff, Leon Panetta, who was among the first Clinton supporter to urge him to tell the nation the truth early on in the scandal, said the President had displayed "a sharp side" to his character that was usually kept private. He said Mr Clinton had shown "how forceful he can be when he wants to make a point, or the quickness of his mind. He was not one to be trapped".

He judged that the video was unlikely to change people's perceptions much. His view was that Mr Clinton's fate would depend on the Democrats' performance in November's mid-term elections.

From Congress came predictable reactions along party lines. "After viewing this videotape, no reasonable person could conclude that the President did not knowingly lie to the grand jury and to the court in the underlying lawsuit," said Bob Barr, a right-wing Republican. Others said the long and rambling answers given by Mr Clinton to many of the prosecution questions were a deliberate stalling tactic, because he knew that the time agreed for the hearing was limited.

Amid the predictable divisions and the reserve, however, one trend could be identified. Politically, much of the tension relating to Mr Clinton's presidency seemed to be dispersing. But the space was at once filled by the lawyers, arguing the evidence of perjury and abuse of power. The Bill and Monica rollercoaster has reversed direction yet again. Bill Clinton's credibility as President may be retrievable; his legal position is once again the issue. The people have had their say; today it will be back to the experts.

Market jitters

Business, page 16