Not a Matter of Whether But of When

Not a Matter of Whether But of When

Not a Matter of Whether But of When

Jan. 28 1998 3:30 AM

Not a Matter of Whether But of When

Not a Matter of Whether But of When

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As unchecked leads flowed from unnamed sources, the TV pundits played judge on Friday, jury on Saturday, but shied away from playing executioner on Sunday morning. Only Juan Williams (Fox News Sunday) seemed rattled by the pundits' collective vehemence, calling their swarming an "electronic lynching."

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On Friday, the talking heads on PBS reigned somber and sincere. Paul Gigot (NewsHour With Jim Lehrer) camouflaged his glee by saying that the scandal was now in Monica Lewinsky's hands. Mark Shields (NewsHour) was the first of many weekend warriors to repeat the stock formula about how the voters had made this deal with Clinton in 1992: He would curb his sexual desires while in the White House. If he had violated that deal by having sex with Lewinsky, Shields recited, the voters would hold him accountable. The Washington Week in Review (PBS) panel lashed Clinton for returning to form by giving "lawyerly, hair-splitting answers" to straightforward questions when what the nation wanted was his outraged denial (Mara Liasson). Meanwhile, Michael Duffy measured the evidence against Clinton and doubted that the independent counsel could prove obstruction of justice.

By Saturday, the pundits were smelling smoke but decided that the press still hadn't "found the fire" (Evan Thomas, Inside Washington). Charles Krauthammer (Inside Washington) sensed an element of "Greek tragedy" to the story, although he didn't specify whether he was referring to Oedipus Rex or Antigone. Thomas and Jack Germond found it easier to cast aspersions on Clinton's partner in ... golf, Vernon Jordan, than on Clinton himself, demanding to know why the Washington fixer helped Lewinsky in her job search and to find an attorney. Nina Totenberg joined Liasson in hollering for the president just to tell the truth.

Morton Kondracke (The McLaughlin Group) made it official: This crisis, he declared, is the biggest to hit Washington "since Watergate." He prophesied a scenario in which President Gore would appoint Dianne Feinstein vice president. Capital Gangster Al Hunt (CNN) embraced Kondracke's view, predicting a "prolonged impeachment" of Clinton and saying that it was not a matter of whether but of when Clinton would be driven out. Sworn Clinton enemy Robert Novak surprised all by turning European statesman on the issue, arguing that a president shouldn't be impeached because he lied about having sex. (Perhaps he prefers a crippled Clinton to a clean Gore.) Margaret Carlson got off a well-polished line, insisting that "1600 Melrose Place" isn't in the same neighborhood as Watergate.

The pundits came for Clinton's blood on Sunday morning, feeding off new allegations unearthed by television reporters: He had been seen "alone" with Lewinsky in the White House movie theater. There were "witnesses" to encounters. Brit Hume (Fox News Sunday) repeated CNN's report that White House aides were talking about resignation. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde appeared on Face the Nation (CBS), Late Edition (CNN), and This WeekWith Sam and Cokie (ABC) to advance the cause of impeachment--by fielding and deflecting questions about how his committee would entertain such proceedings against the president. But even right-wing pundits like Tony Snow (Fox News Sunday) branded talk of impeachment irresponsible.

Resignation is another thing: Cokie Roberts (This Week) framed the question in terms of "survival" of the Clinton presidency. Bill Kristol saw the end coming in a matter of days; George Stephanopoulos blushed at the prospect; and George Will, who kept going on about "moral turpitude" in the White House, seemed more interested in having the president crucified for his sins than in having him impeached. (Will also described the crisis as "military," all but predicting that next Sunday the pundits would find themselves choosing between Clinton and Hussein.) Distancing himself as far from Clinton as he could, Stephanopoulos urged the president to deliver a make-or-break speech from the Oval Office, hold a press conference, and address Congress. Such a presidential Chautauqua would do no good, said Kristol, because Clinton would have to tell the truth, and the truth isn't on his side.

Clinton's misadventure put lesser issues in perspective: The pope's visit to Cuba, the defiant Saddam Hussein, the Korea bailout. Even free-lance pundit Dennis Rodman, who was suspended by the Chicago Bulls for missing a practice, was able to see his troubles through Clinton's lens. Rodman told reporters he was doing fine, "The president is having a bad damn week."