THE PEOPLE'S PANEL Politics, politics, politics'; The third time around, The People's Panel takes no prisoners. Is a lie just a lie?


The People's Panel convened again the other night to talk about the latest developments in L'Affaire Monica, including the party-line vote by the House Judiciary Committee to recommend an impeachment inquiry, which the full House approved yesterday.

Some panel members want President Clinton to leave office. Some want him to stay. Some want him to stay and be punished. Some want him to get therapy. One wants him to get therapy and not tell us about it. We all want the president to come to Baltimore, have a coffee and cookie with us, and talk. (We invited him two weeks ago -- no spin doctors allowed -- but are still waiting by the phone.)

In our third meeting, panelists appeared to become more comfortable with each other, and with speaking their minds. The conversation became quite spirited at times -- but no injuries were reported.

Moderator Dan Rodricks: Well, it looks like we're going to have impeachment hearings. The Republican counsel to the judiciary committee says there's significant, credible evidence that the president lied and took part in an effort to obstruct justice.

Elayne Smith (administrator at a counseling center): He may have obstructed justice, but he was covering himself to avoid being found out about an extramarital affair.

Rabbi Martin Siegel: He was covering himself after not covering himself.

Rodricks: I keep hearing people say -- Bobby Knatz, you said this in previous meetings of this group -- that anyone would lie in that situation.

Bobby Knatz (Democratic precinct pol): Yes, I have said that. We've had many philosophical discussions here. They've been discussions, not debates, and I've enjoyed it. But anyone who doesn't think what's going on in Washington is politics, politics, politics, and anyone who thought the hard-line, Republican-controlled judiciary committee was going to do anything other than keep this moving in an election year is just not realistic. I think the GOP majority is absolutely astounded that, after putting Clinton up against the wall by having his videotaped grand jury testimony released, the reaction was not what they anticipated; it wasn't a coup de grace. In fact, his approval rating increased.

Rodricks: What about the law, Bobby? A lifelong Democrat, David Schippers, the GOP lead counsel to the judiciary committee, came up with this report. Are you going to dismiss everyone who sees wrongdoing by the president as part of a right-wing conspiracy?

Knatz: There is unquestionably a hard-line, far-right in the GOP that is not going to let this thing die. Ken Starr and the far right take no prisoners.

Rodricks: Man, you don't give any ground.

Knatz: I'm not going to, because of Ken Starr. I don't believe

Starr was an unbiased special counsel when he took the job.

Nance Jacobs (medical assistant and teacher): He had three judges supervising him; they could have stepped in at any time and said, "Enough, you're out."

Daniel Myung (certified public accountant): Bobby, the question we should be asking is: Do we allow the president to lie, to get away with perjury? I think the consensus of the American people is yes, that it's OK.

Rodricks: At least in this case, because it involved a sexual relationship.

4 Myung: I don't think he should get away with it.

Smith: Get away with what?

Myung: Perjury, breaking the law.

Smith: He broke the law but ... about what?

Rodricks: Elayne, I have that problem, too. I think a lot of Americans do. But are you going to say to your kid, it's all right to lie about this, but not that?

Smith: No. But this comes down to an extramarital affair that anybody would have lied about.

Myung: He was under oath. Under oath!

Smith (to Myung): You think you wouldn't lie under oath?

Jacobs: No.

Smith (to Jacobs): If you didn't want your spouse to know that you were having an extramarital affair?

Jacobs: No, because if I say, "I swear to God," I am not going to lie.

Smith: That's what you would do.

Dee Herget (screenpainter): OK, Clinton had a sexual affair. Kenneth Starr is going after him hook and nail and Clinton will live with it for the rest of his life, whereas Ms. Lewinsky will be a millionaire.

Rodricks: Dee, get to the legal question. This isn't like we're in the supermarket and we see a headline that says, "Clinton and I had affair, intern says." This was brought into a legal framework.

Herget: We had 14 presidents who had affairs, I just read that somewhere. We all have skeletons in our closet. Chances are we all know someone who had a boyfriend or girlfriend on the side. The morals of this country are not what they used to be.

Myung: But people did not elect us ...

Herget: You want Clinton to be thrown in the stocks and be beaten.

Myung: No.

Rodricks: Daniel's denying that, Dee. I want that noted. He does not want Clinton thrown into the stocks and beaten. ... But you didn't answer about the legal questions.

Herget: He covered it up. You think I wouldn't?

Jacobs: In a court of law?

Herget: You can't say you're not going to deny it unless it happens to you. You can't just sit here in this room and say you're not going to deny it to cover your butt.

Myung: He's the president of the United States of America. He was hired to enforce the law and he broke the law. We keep saying, "What I would do in this situation." But he's the president.

Jason Wilson (musician and radio producer): Who cares?

Rodricks: There you go again, Jason, back to your "who cares?" position. Yours is the Whatever Generation.

Wilson: No, no, Daniel [Myung] is part of my generation, too. (Laughter) But my thing is, I don't think this affair is worth all this. So what?

Myung: I think that's the consensus of Americans, they're saying, "Who cares?"

Rodricks: OK, Daniel, but your Republican Party is pushing this thing. We're going to have hearings, maybe Monica testifying before millions.

Myung: What I'm saying is, you have to show the next generation that there is a consequence to your behavior.

Wilson: I think we've shown that already.

Smith: Clinton's humiliation is a consequence.

Myung: For the sake of argument, let's say Clinton broke the law, that he committed one of these impeachable offenses. OK? Does that bother anyone here?

Wilson: It does. But my understanding of what impeachment is supposed to be is when the president breaks the law to the detriment of the country. And I don't think if he lied about an affair it was to the detriment of the country.

Herget: Censure him, fine him.

Wilson: But impeachment is way too much.

Rodricks: The chief executive lying under oath is not to the detriment of the country?

Smith: Lying about what?

Rodricks: Lying about anything.

Wilson: You see, I don't think it's cut and dry like that. It's not about anything. It's not right and it says something about the kind of man he is but ...

Rodricks: So when would lying be inexcusable, for the president of the United States?

Smith: Lying about an affair, most people might do that. This story has made everyone look at their own humanness, and remember those words: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

Herget: I don't think Kenneth Starr can.

Jacobs: What really offends me is that everyone is being painted with the same brush, the suggestion that everyone is [having extramarital sex].

Smith: No, that's not what I'm saying. I'm not saying everyone has done what Clinton has done. Choose the thing you've done and just think about it; it doesn't have to be an affair in the White House.

Jacobs: If I were a politician right now, I'd have great difficulty convincing any child to follow my footsteps, because of the suggestion that every one of our political leaders has had an affair, and every one has lied and we have to accept that that is the truth of life today.

Siegel: I want to offer another approach. I think this whole thing is no longer about Mr. Clinton. It's about us. What do we care about? What do we want our future to be? What kind of leadership do we want? He didn't lie about government matters; he lied about his personal life. Are we going to say we, as a people, don't care anymore? Or that we never did care; we just didn't want to know about it? Or are we going to say, "Sex does funny things to people and therefore we're going to let that go"? It's our decision.

Rodricks: I would have done that, let it go, had it not been for the law. If we found out he'd had an affair with Monica, if they showed up in the supermarket tabs, it would have been a sensation for a couple of weeks and then gone ...

Smith: So what bothers you? Why don't you let it go?

Rodricks: I guess the lying under oath.

Knatz: I still don't understand how testimony in a civil case ends up in a paralyzing impeachment proceeding.

Jacobs: There's a guy sitting in jail in Annapolis right now because a barge he was towing flipped and he didn't report it to the Coast Guard, and there may have been environmentally dangerous products on board. And because he didn't tell the truth to the Coast Guard, he's sitting in jail.

Wilson: That's different. That could have affected the environment, my health, everybody's health. What Clinton did was not to the detriment of the country.

Rodricks: Let's get back to the legal question here -- whether it was perjury, whether it was obstruction.

Siegel: That's too narrow a focus.

Rodricks: Too narrow?

Siegel: Why did he lie? Why did Kenneth Starr pursue him? Because they're both obsessed with power for its own sake. That's what it's about -- the corruption that comes from the mindless obsession with power. You cannot be impeached for that because if you could be, they'd impeach every member of Congress and every president and so on. He has the virus of the political class. That's why I find what's going on so ludicrous; they've all got the same disease. They're just trying to eliminate the chief member. Let's look at the real sickness, rather than trying to look at the narrow legalistic framework. This is about attitudes, about self, about the role of government and the role that morality, as expressed by government, can play in our lives.

Rodricks: I'm glad you pushed it there. Every day this consumes the media over other important issues. We're obsessed with this story. Let me ask all of you: What has this story made you think about?

Knatz: Sex. (Laughter)

Herget: He's the Viagra generation!

Rodricks: Besides sex.

Siegel: I've never seen people as engaged as they've been with this story. It's the deepest thing that's happening. People are interested because they're really figuring out who they are. No political effort can ever do that. It's not just about whether Clinton stays or goes. It's about who we are and where our country is going morally and spiritually.

Rodricks: But what to do with the president's lies?

Siegel: I really don't care anymore. I don't want to see Bill Clinton hurt. He may be a hollow man. The political system has produced a hollow man. But he's a human being, created by God, and therefore he has the potential to be more than that. I'd like to see the system move toward redemption. It could take many forms. It could be punishment. We should not focus on the narrow legalistic process, but look toward the redemption of the system because the system has been undermined. Instead of Republicans and Democrats playing this game, why can't they come to some consensus about how to go about this for the sake of the country?

Rodricks: Polls show people want to move on, in contrast with Monday's party-line vote to stage impeachment hearings.

Knatz: Because among Republican members of that panel their hard-core support is the extreme right wing.

Jacobs: Democrats voted as a bloc, Republicans voted as a bloc.

Rodricks: It's been said the Christian Coalition has been pushing the Republicans to pursue this.

Myung: I feel sorry for the Christian Coalition. They get blamed for a lot. I don't think I'm extreme. Just because I believe in morality and justice, I don't think that's being extreme. What really bothers me is how the people are reacting to this situation. It's said: He who is without sin cast the first stone.

Smith: I said that.

Myung: If you use that rule, then you might as well get rid of our judicial system.

Wilson: See, if this was about tax evasion, there would not be a debate. Because the issues are so personal, so individual in nature, we're having this moral discussion.

Siegel: We're talking about the most powerful man in the world. The fate of hundreds of millions of people rest on this man. He's clearly a man of some spiritual flaws. He may also have done some things that are illegal. Question is, should we disrupt the whole process of the world because we've discovered he's a hollow man? I'd much rather that he see that himself and, to use the Christian term, save his soul.

Rodricks: If Clinton came forward and went before the judiciary committee and said something like that, could that get us there, toward this redemption you talk about?

Siegel: Absolutely.

Rodricks: You don't think they would have his head?

Siegel: The committee is caught up in the political process. However, look at the polls -- the people want to get over this in a healing way. The nation needs to be healed. Clinton needs to be healed. Some people won't like, won't trust him. But if he appears before the committee, or comes here with us. ...

Rodricks: I extended the invitation, Rabbi, and haven't heard back.

Siegel: Maybe he's not capable of such an act. Maybe Bill Clinton has become such a creature of power that there is no genuine Bill Clinton. The only Bill Clinton that exists might be the one in the media, the one that plays president. He's holding on to the accoutrements of the job for dear life because if he ever lost them there'd be no Bill Clinton left. And that's scary.

The Panelists

Elayne Smith, 48, lifelong Baltimorean. Administrator of a counseling center in Cockeysville. "This comes down to an extramarital affair that anybody would have lied about."

Bobby Knatz, 68, Reisterstown. Commerical real estate broker, self-described "old Democratic precinct politician." "Ken Starr and the far right take no prisoners."

Jason Wilson, 25, of Columbia. Musician and freelance radio producer and recording engineer. "My thing is, I don't think this

affair is worth all this. So what?"

Rabbi Martin Siegel, 65, led the Columbia Jewish Congregation for 26 years. Runs institute for spiritual healing. "Maybe Bill Clinton has become such a creature of power that there is no genuine Bill Clinton."

Nance Jacobs; 57, of Annapolis, Medical assistant, teacher, homemaker, native New Yorker. "What really offends me is the suggestion that every one of our political leaders has had an affair."

Daniel Myung, 26, certified pulic accountant from Columbia. Registered Republican, born-again Christian. "I feel sorry for the Christian Coalition. They get blamed for a lot. I don't think I'm extreme. Just because I believe in morality and justice."

Dee Herget, 63, of Essex. Baltimore's best-known painter of window screens. Her work is sought by folk-art collectors all over the world. "We had 14 presidents who had affairs, I just read that somewhere. ... He covered it up. You think I wouldn't?"

Pub Date: 10/09/98

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