The Magazine

APRES LE SPEECH

Aug 31, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 48 • By JAY NORDLINGER
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IF PRESIDENT CLINTON could count on anyone in the press, it was Eleanor Clift, the Newsweek writer known in certain quarters as "Eleanor Rodham Clift." She never wavered.


As late as July 25, she was saying, "My feeling is that he told the truth." Immediately after Clinton's Map Room speech on August 17, she observed that "this was a consensual relationship between two people." Monica Lewinsky "knew what she was doing, and she is old enough to have sex with whomever she wants." It was Linda Tripp's "betrayal" that "forced" Lewinsky into the open, transgressing a proper "zone of privacy." Clinton, said Clift, "is an empathetic president, and he will receive empathy in return." He is "not a CEO," who might lose his job over an affair with an intern: "He's been elected by the people."


And, inevitably, there was the independent counsel to kick. After a night's sleep, Clift announced, "Kenneth Starr is the one with the problem this morning, not Clinton."


August 17 was a day of reckoning for the entire Clinton orbit, and not least for those journalists who had defended the president through seven months of fevered debate. Some, like Clift, were happy to exonerate Clinton, standing shoulder to shoulder with him, as usual. Others were disappointed in him, but still bent on reviling his enemies. And a few opted to dump the president altogether, turning on him with the fury of those who have been suckered and burned. The pro-Clinton media were forced to come to terms with the moment -- and, more painfully, with themselves.


Geraldo Rivera was fairly nervous about the speech. For weeks, he had been bracing himself for disaster. He said on July 30, "If there is a semenstained dress, I will be disappointed to my very core. It will still be proof of just a sex lie," of course. But "it will be such glaring evidence of insincerity that it will demoralize even those who feel, as I do, that Ken Starr is way out of line." On August 13, following Clinton's appearance at a memorial service for victims of terrorism in Africa, Rivera said, "We saw him today in all his wounded glory. Our president, our commander-in-chief, mourning the murder of our fellow citizens. Look at him, ladies and gentlemen! Strong and sympathetic; compassionate; compelling. And, I think, enormously believable."


After Clinton made his partial confession, Rivera had a confession of his own: Clinton, in admitting his deceit, had "sent chills through my body." But Rivera did not stay chilled for long. He charged that Starr was "trying to parlay adultery into impeachment." And "to use a federal grand jury to go after something that is essentially the scarlet letter is, to me, an appalling breach in judgment that smacks of partisanship." Rivera -- practically alone among journalists -- was willing to accept even the president's claim of "legal accuracy" in his Paula Jones deposition: "That is technically correct." As for Clinton's statement that we must "move on," Rivera chimed, "He's absolutely right about that."


Steven Brill, of "Pressgate" notoriety, was a guest on Rivera's show, where he furthered his campaign against Starr, charging that the independent counsel was in gross violation of law and ethics, favoring pliant reporters with leaks intended to harm the president. Brill's view of the scandal is consistent, if peculiar. On CBS after the fateful speech, he said that Clinton had failed to "erase a lot of the legacy of the many, many weeks of coverage that we've seen. We need to remember that this started with someone working with a book agent, looking for a book deal; who teamed up, I think, with a prosecutor who was in quest of a crime, and then together, they basically teamed up -- I mean, it wasn't a deliberate . . . -- with a press corps that needs to fill a constant vacuum." Brill also continues to heap abuse on ABC's Jackie Judd for having been spot-on about Lewinsky's infamous dress. For Brill, Monicagate can be understood as a concoction of dark Washington forces, with a dash of presidential stupidity thrown in.