Impact of Democracy by Video
Release yesterday of Clinton's grand-jury testimony is step toward more 'direct democracy.'
WASHINGTON — The release of President Clinton's videotaped grand-jury testimony, along with voluminous addenda to the Starr report, is pushing the boundary between disclosure and discretion in what is already the globe's most open democracy.
From hotel lobbies to airport terminals, Americans huddled around televisions yesterday to see the latest installment of The Clinton Crisis - more than four hours of video showing the president at his most intimate and unvarnished.
By releasing the tape, as well as 3,183 pages of often tedious and tawdry documentation, congressional Republicans are essentially telling the American public: Here it all is. You be the judge of the president's conduct.
Experts say the mammoth information dump represents the most powerful example yet of politicians pulling back from their role as filter, deliberator, and leader, and sharing more of that responsibility with the public - a phenomenon made possible through the explosion in communication technologies. This shift toward a more open democracy, represented in everything from ballot initiatives to expanding C-SPAN coverage, has its advantages - and drawbacks.
In a political culture of cynicism and public-relations wars, the release of the Starr material can help keep lawmakers honest. But it also doesn't leave much room for political leadership.
"On the one hand, when you're more open, there's less chance for shenanigans," says George Edwards, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M in College Station. "On the other hand, when you're more open, there's less chance for statesmanship."
Of course, more openness means the public can be more informed. Instead of accepting Mr. Starr's analysis of the president's testimony at face value, Americans can decide for themselves whether the president was rightfully fighting off a political attack by prosecutors or wrongfully evasive, angry, or flat-out untruthful.
But more information doesn't necessarily mean better information. David Shenk, author of a book on the "information glut," faults Congress for unleashing a flood of detail, much of it titillating, that leaves the public unable to focus on key issues.
"Congress is supposed to do a lot more than ensure the free flow of information. It is supposed to be our eyes and ears for things that we don't have the time or expertise for," he says. "What we're seeing here is competing virtues: the virtue of public disclosure versus the virtue of editing. We shouldn't let infatuation with powerful new technologies obscure the importance of intelligent human filtering."
In a Time/CNN poll, 67 percent of Americans said release of the president's videotaped testimony was a bad idea. In a Newsweek poll, 52 percent disapproved of its release, though a significant number of respondents, 44 percent, thought it was good.
Pollsters attribute this to an information-saturated public that has largely made up its mind on the president. "Public opinion solidified early on," says Jason Kramer, project manager for the Time/CNN poll.
Still, the public hasn't stopped absorbing information. Mr. Kramer says 67 percent of Americans say they have read or heard "a lot or a fair amount" of the massive Starr report.
Political analysts believe the videotape - as opposed to the more than 3,000 pages of documents released yesterday - has the greatest potential to move public opinion. In this video age, most people still get their news from television, though young people especially are hooked on the Internet, which also featured the full video feed of the president's testimony.
Whether Americans watched the whole thing or just news clips, they saw a different man from the one who delivered a teary apology at a prayer breakfast 12 days ago. From the outset of the testimony, the president tried to set the tone of the proceedings. He opened with a statement, read in a somber voice, in which he admitted to "inappropriate intimate contact" and "occasional telephone conversations" that included "inappropriate sexual banter." But he refused to answer specifics out of privacy consideration and respect for the office.
Viewers could well come away from the video with a sympathetic impression of the president, who seemed interested in adding context to the specific questions about truthfulness, the definition of sexual relations, and conversations with aides and staff about Monica Lewinsky.
Others, however, might view the president's pauses to ponder answers, his finger-shaking and firm answers to the prosecutors, his definition of sex, and several instances of language parsing, as evasiveness and lying.
"Much of the president's destiny is in the hands of the video engineers" who decided how to edit the news clips, says John Zogby, who heads the independent polling company, Zogby International.
It's striking how different the information flow is in this case compared with Watergate. Then-prosecutor Leon Jaworski's findings are still under lock and key in the national archives. Americans learned of President Nixon's abuse of power through the hearings in Congress, which were open to the public.
Here, the information has come out up front and all at once. Charles Jones, professor of politics at the University of Wisconsin, attributes this to the enhanced powers of the office of independent counsel, a job that was created as a result of Watergate. "In a way, Starr is doing the work of the [congressional] staff" in the Nixon era, explains Mr. Jones.
But politics has also changed. "In the last couple of decades, the House has become so partisan that no one trusts anybody else - so they just release it all to the public," he says.