Scandal and Rumor Consume the Attention of Washington

Seldom, if ever, has a presidential scandal so quickly and so thoroughly engulfed the business of government in Washington.

But the allegation that President Clinton had an affair with a White House intern has left many inside the Beltway uncharacteristically off balance.

From the Oval Office, to unusually restrained Republican critics, to the thousands of bureaucrats who manage the day-to-day workings of government, the scandal is having an impact.

For instance, a federal worker who deals with family-planning issues says: "How can the president call for more money for family planning and contraception with a straight face?"

The story's sensational subject matter - and its potential for bringing down the administration of the world's most powerful country - has prompted the 1990s real-time media to unleash an around-the-clock frenzy of television crews, on-line commentators, and reporters ready to snap up each new salacious detail and beam it immediately into American living rooms.

"This is what you call a 'mega frenzy,' " says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and author of a book on the media titled "Feeding Frenzy."

Some see this as the duty of the press, to provide the public with the most up-to-date information about the quality of their nation's leadership.

But others are uncertain that the media should be so intently focused on this case. "If Bill Clinton is impeached, the next day I will pack my bags and leave this country." says an Italian journalist now working at a Washington think tank. "I think it's disgraceful the kind of questions he is being asked when he has serious business to take care of."

The White House response so-far appears lethargic in contrast to the flash-flood of news that has swept the country since the story broke on Wednesday.

White House staffers and other Clinton allies are frustrated at how little they know about the president and Monica Lewinsky. "Senior White House aides were just stunned by the revelations, they said it was like a bomb that rocked the White House," says CBS White House correspondent Mark Knoller. "It certainly is causing them to examine their relationship with the president."

Congress, for its part, reacted to the media onslaught with an uncanny silence, though cafeterias on Capitol Hill buzzed with hushed gossip. Democrats, who had anticipated a triumphant State of the Union address tomorrow evening, retreated into a humorless gloom. Many refused to return phone calls.

Usually vociferous critics, Republicans have kept mum on the scandal as part of a GOP strategy to let the president sink under his own weight. For example, Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi managed to deflect a large flock of reporters at the Chamber of Commerce with a statesman-like comment about business as usual.

WITH politicians tight-lipped, the story has been driven by a revved-up media machine. The power of today's lightning-quick media to shape events was evident on Wednesday, when instant feedback moved Clinton to reword his statements on the accusations in three successive interviews.

Described by his staff as anxious to get his story out - but appearing to some as just plain anxious - Clinton immediately came under the gun for using the present tense when stating on "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer" that "there is no improper relationship" with Lewinsky.

"Oh, well I'll use the past tense," the president said after hearing the reaction, according to White House press secretary Mike McCurry. In another interview, with National Public Radio, the president said "there wasn't improper relations."

Yet the blow-by-blow news coverage from the capital also brought a dangerous rush to judgment, some observers say. Propelled by intense competition, some reports blurred the line between fact and conjecture.

"The pressure has driven some of our colleagues well beyond the bounds of journalistic ethics to the point where many have convicted the president already," says CBS radio correspondent Rob Armstrong, citing a flurry of thin, single-source reports. "This is not a feeding frenzy," he says, "it's a feeding orgy."

Indeed, as television news anchors jetted into town from Cuba and elsewhere, and hordes of journalists set up stake-outs around the city - from the Watergate apartments where Lewinsky is staying to the ankle-deep mud on the White House front lawn - tempers began to flare.

On Thursday morning, cameramen outside a federal building narrowly avoided a free-for-all as they traded insults and shoved each other while jockeying for a shot of independent counsel Kenneth Starr - a rare scene even in news-hungry Washington.

Still, some blamed the ruckus on the confusing way the encounter was organized. First, it was to be a press conference. Then it was changed to "a walk around the block with Ken Starr." Finally, both were scrapped for a photo session.

"We are moving as promptly as we can," Mr. Starr said, before retreating with the plea: "This is not a news conference!"

But the legal process remains slow when measured by the minute-to-minute deadlines of Washington reporters, who continue to press for a fuller disclosure by the president of what kind of relationship he did have with Lewinsky.

Under the glare of live television cameras in the White House press room, Mr. McCurry repeats the tired response that the president's lawyers are advising him to hold back on speaking out for legal reasons. But the questions keep coming. "How long can you expect the public to wait? one reporter demands.

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