For All Its Hype, Tape Lacked Expected Drama

Time to lean back on the pillow and light up. Was it as good for you as it was for the media?

MSNBC's Don Imus: "Twenty-two minutes to the tape."

CNN's Judy Woodruff: "We are just about 10 minutes away."

C-SPAN's Brian Lamb: "Tape's comin' up. My screen says nine minutes."

Fox News Channel's Brit Hume: "There will be a delay."

CNN's Bob Franken: "We have just learned the videotapes are on the move."

CNN's Bernard Shaw: "And this could be it."

Shaw: "And you're watching the tapes being cued up."

Shaw: "We got a four-minute heads up."

Hume: "Now just about a minute away from starting this."

Woodruff: "We are just seconds away."

Like much of the nation, I ardently opposed showing President Clinton's four hours-plus grand jury video on television. Like much of the nation, I watched Monday morning.

All right, I was assigned to watch. But I would have anyway. Call it the Peeping Tom syndrome.

From violence to sex, why do so many of us watch what we claim disgusts us? Are we hypocrites? Or do we do it out of fear of being social outcasts, the only one at the neighborhood barbecue without an opinion? By watching at least some of the Clinton video, for example, you stayed in the loop and abreast of the latest chat, giving yourself the chance to participate in what inevitably will become a national dialogue. After all, how can you be offended by something--beaming the video and its humiliatingly graphic sexual references to homes like an entertainment show--that you haven't seen firsthand?

No wonder the video was as seductive as it was surreal. It delivered the hat trick: unprecedented videotape of grand jury testimony, of a president's grand jury testimony, of a president's grand jury testimony tied to sex!

At 6:25 a.m. it began: the spectacle of a global audience being able to witness a U.S. president being grilled on camera about his past tryst with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. The Aug. 17 questioners were prosecutors from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's office.

It was something for a voyeur to build a morning around. After all, how often do you get to see a president facing what came across on TV as an inquisition about sex, those legalities about possible perjury and obstruction of justice notwithstanding? On this poor-quality tape, the usually air-brushed Clinton looked like a Post Office poster boy: Call the cops immediately if you see this man. Was this news or "America's Most Wanted?"

In any case, it was available nearly everywhere you looked. "If somebody doesn't want to watch this, don't watch it," Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana, a Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee, said last week in justifying the committee's controversial decision to offer the tape to television. For years, the TV industry has been deploying the same don't-watch-if-you-don't-like-it argument against those who charge it with airing smutty programming. Curiously, none of these critics of TV, from congressional conservatives to members of the Religious Right, was publicly critical of the Clinton video being televised.

The irony here is that, in other circumstances, much of the graphic language on the video--as prosecutors tried to dislodge the president from his exotic definition of sex--probably would not have made the cut on mainstream television. That includes the 24-hour news channels and ABC, CBS and NBC. The latter did cut away briefly at times when it felt some of the sexual descriptions in the tape were too raw to be aired.

Salacious or not, did this video really add public understanding about the issues of impeachment or further drag the nation into its bottomless mudhole?

While the video had its own curious appeal on a primal level, it also fell short of its advance billing, reaffirming the frequent unreliability of partisan leaks. Talk about your shoddy reporting that gets shoveled at America because of competitive pressures.

For days there had been breathless reports throughout TV, based on anonymous sources, about the coming video showing Clinton folding under pressure like a rattled and red-faced Capt. Queeg. He was depicted by some even as angrily halting the grand jury proceedings from time to time when the questions hit too close.

The president did get a little testy occasionally, as did at least one of his questioners. But lose his cool and bring out the ball bearings? Whatever else Clinton was on the video, he was none of that.

Instead, he was what the president's biographer, David Maraniss, described on TV as the "full Clinton." That included presidential splitting of hairs that surely no one previously had thought of splitting ("It depends on what the meaning of 'is' is"). It also included a display--when denying that he asked Lewinsky to lie to the grand jury--of the identical earnest demeanor and facial expression he had when asserting to the nation on TV Jan. 26 that he had not had sexual relations with "that woman."

Many Americans have seen none or just a portion of the video. That means that how it ultimately plays will depend largely, as these things always do, on what sound bites appear in the press and on what spin it is given by the White House, Congress and the media.

Among the instant analysts weighing in immediately after the video aired Monday was ABC's voice for all seasons, Sam Donaldson, who declared unequivocally about Clinton: "I think he came across as someone who is an artful dodger!" Depending on what the meaning of 'is' is.

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