Viewers Greet Clinton Video With Shrug

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The U.S. Congress said the American people needed to see the president testify. TV commentators trumpeted that the nation would be riveted. One newspaper proclaimed: "All Eyes on Clinton."

But as televisions blinked on Monday morning across the nation--if they were tuned to President Clinton at all--most Americans seemed to react with a collective shrug.

Dozens of people interviewed by The Times in an unscientific survey said they had seen and heard enough about the president's sexual dalliances and alleged lies.

For those who did watch, the unprecedented release of a videotaped deposition of a sitting president proved more historic anomaly than watershed political event.

Opponents said Clinton's equivocations and hair-splitting about sex--including his ramblings about the meaning of the words "is" and "alone"--prove he lied. Supporters viewed the president as the victim of a "sexual witch hunt," which he weathered with surprising dignity and aplomb.

In Orange County, most people expressed either support for the president or the sentiment that, however immoral his behavior, it is the concern only of his wife.

The four-hour-plus, multinetwork broadcast apparently did little to change entrenched positions or to resolve ambivalence.

The three networks and five cable broadcasters could cite the historic significance of the event, but the public responded with hundreds of complaints. Some had questions about the sordid sexual content of the questioning; others wanted to see their regular programs.

"Any time you preempt a soap [opera] for anything, people are going to respond," noted one network official. ABC described many of the calls as neither pro-Clinton nor anti-Clinton but rather "anti-media."

'I Love Lucy' a Welcome Respite

From coffee shops to gyms to waiting rooms, and even in some of the halls of government in Washington, the predominant reaction of the day seemed to be indifference.

"Is 'I Love Lucy' on? I don't want to hear this stuff," said Lon Morris, a 51-year-old aerospace engineer from Ventura, as he sat down to breakfast with a friend at a Canoga Park restaurant.

In Santa Ana, television repairman Henry Schultz worked on a set at Goldenwest T.V. while President Clinton's picture and testimony rang out from one of the few sets that seemed to be whole.

As the president finished saying he did not believe that oral sex constituted sexual relations as it had been legally defined to him, Schultz shook his head.

"That's unbelievable that he doesn't think it's sex," Schultz said. "I'm not surprised, though. He's a good talker--they don't call him 'Slick Willie' for nothing."

In the antique shopping district in downtown Orange, Barbara Ann Graham of Annie's Collectibles had the opposite reaction. She turned on the president's testimony as soon as she awoke Monday and found herself in Clinton's corner.

"I'm not a Clinton supporter--I did not vote for him--but I thought he was spectacular," Graham said. "He held his own ground. He was thoughtful, and he really got his points across about the persecution he's undergone and how much money this has taken."

Across the street, 86-year-old Jennia Winslow was strolling with a friend after watching the president for several hours. The videotape of his grand jury testimony infuriated her--creating a deep anger at Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, not the president.

"That Ken Starr has gone too far," Winslow said. Clinton is "getting a dirty, dirty deal. His sex life, like everyone else's, is between him and his wife."

Winslow said the media have exaggerated the issue.

Much Media Ado About Nothing?

In fact, the media were criticized as frequently as either Starr or Clinton by viewers Monday morning.

"I watched this thing, and it really wasn't anything; it was old news," said Paul Gonzalez at a 7-Eleven in Santa Ana. "The news made it seem like a big deal; it wasn't."

Instead of fireworks, tension, perjury or passion, Gonzalez said, he saw politics as usual.

At Hualatronics karaoke and audio systems in Garden Grove, Steve Hua drew a sharp distinction between Clinton's performance as president and the Monica S. Lewinsky affair.

"The country has got to put the personal matters behind," Hua said. "I still trust him because the economy is progressing; there are jobs, and, as a president, he's been very good."

At the Boulevard Cafe near Baldwin Hills, 78-year-old Bill Kay turned his back to the television, declaring, "I think it's a bunch of political [bull]."

Even in the Pentagon mall--through which thousands of uniformed and civilian workers stream each morning--televisions were tuned out and people bustled about their business. At an office inside, one Army officer snorted, "We refuse to watch it."

This is not to say that the televised spectacle of a president being asked graphically about sex and lies was a nonevent. Many people did tune in.

Typically, they found in Clinton's performance something to bolster long-calcified positions. The undecided, who were supposed to gain clarity from the public display, continued to be flummoxed by the situation.

At Mid-Valley Athletic Club in Reseda, Randi Rotwein said she felt extreme disappointment not only in Clinton but also in the investigation she feels is hounding him.

"He's a clever enough man--that's why he's president," said Rotwein, a political independent, as she marched on a Stairmaster. "He knows how to turn a question around and answer it the way he wants to--but he seems to be squirming. He [created] his own dictionary.'

Nevertheless, she wants Clinton to remain in office. "It's such a disgrace that our country is spending all this time and money on a 'sex watch,"' she added. "America looks like a bunch of fools."

Even many of those who concluded the president lied under oath remained hesitant to have him leave office. On Monday, some suggested creative alternative punishments: Clinton should not be allowed to raise funds politically, or he should be jailed briefly, but without giving up his post.

"I have lost respect for him. He is a liar," said Carol Henson, a Republican and an interior designer, who watched the tape at a Pasadena gym. "I have really mixed feelings. But I think he should probably continue and do the best he can."

At the Tavern restaurant in the New Jersey town of Pennington, carpet installer Rich Mosier chuckled as the president wriggled in his seat. "He forgets a lot, don't he?" Mosier quipped to a friend. "Alzheimer's at 55. I think it's the lying that's killing him."

But Mosier, 45, said he is baffled by some people's outrage. "He admitted he did it," he said. "What more do you want?"

With such sentiments widespread, many viewers said they swung emotionally in the president's favor as the questioning grew more protracted.

At Texas Southern University, the south side of Houston, freshman Elisa Jackson said she had opposed broadcast of the tapes. But a few minutes into Clinton's testimony, she saw her man winning the day.

"Oh, he looks good," she said, smiling broadly. "I think he's real cool under all this pressure. I really wanted to see this."

It was clear that the dogged questioning did not improve the tepid view many had of the special prosecutor.

But others saw the president as caught in his own lies and badly damaged.

Dave Simon, a professional writing student at USC, said the president "looked pathetic, like a man on a fishhook."

"He was caught and still trying to get around the issues," said Simon, 25. The president "was sweating, getting upset and has totally lost his ability to make people believe him."

Many, particularly immigrants, conceded that their own backgrounds influenced their views of the testimony as much as what they saw and heard.

Across many cultures and ethnic groups, the president's dilemma refracted through a variety of prisms.

At the central Greyhound bus station in Los Angeles, Faustino Prado forked out 25 cents to watch the testimony on a coin-operated television. Then he fell asleep.

Later, the immigrant from Mexico said the attention paid the scandal was overblown. In his country, he noted, it would take government corruption or serious graft to inspire public outrage.

"It's not comparable," he said in Spanish. "The president should have a private life."

What a Country, Immigrants Say

But in Los Angeles' Koreatown, Joseph Cho, an immigrant from South Korea, was impressed that the highest officeholder in the country could be questioned freely in public.

"Can you imagine this happening anywhere else in the world?" he asked. "I am overcome with an appreciation for a system of government that allows public scrutiny like this. What a fabulous country America is!"

The decision of the networks to join in the wire-to-wire coverage of the testimony came at the last minute Monday morning, in response to competitive pressure from five cable channels.

ABC, CBS and NBC had originally said they would probably air edited portions of the videotape. Instead, the three news divisions ultimately stayed with the testimony and subsequent analysis uninterrupted from 6 to 11 a.m. Representatives at the major TV networks said they felt the story's significance and the nature of the videotape--providing elements of political theater and courtroom drama--justified showing the entire proceeding. Most channels ran on-air warnings about the sexually explicit material.

In contrast to public sentiments, one ABC spokeswoman said, "We felt it was far more compelling and more historically significant than we thought it was going to be."

Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Paul Brownfield, Jose Cardenas, Ed Chen, Mike Clary, Mark Fritz, John Glionna, Lianne Hart, K. Connie Kang, Tyler Marshall, Solomon Moore, Joe Mozingo, Paul Richter and Jocelyn Stewart. Also contributing were correspondents Katie E. Ismael, Ann Kim, Jack Leonard and Richard Winton.

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