1999 Anne Horton Writing Award
The Wounding of a President
The Death of an Elephant?"
The televised impeachment hearings of President William Jefferson Clinton have led the American public to a renewed sense of political power. In examining these Constitutional proceedings, what will be the significance of the media attention focused on both parties of Congress as they trudge through the hearings? What will be the political consequences from the constituents for holding their televisions and radios hostage for more than a year?
As the story of the President's liaison with Monica Lewinsky unfolded, the country seemed in a state of shock and embarrassment for Mr. Clinton, as well as for the country. The lawsuit with Paula Jones was lascivious enough.....and now this? The television media began a shark feeding frenzy, with twenty-four-hour-a-day coverage, delving into the most personal aspects of the lives of those involved. The public inhaled the details of the scandal with the enthusiasm of a cocaine-addicted Colombian. The Republicans in the House and Senate immediately began a campaign of their own. At all hours of the day or night, the public could witness a re-cap of the day's discoveries with several members of the majority party self-righteously condemning the President for immoral and illegal acts. As the media coverage intensified, and the public opinion polls of the President's popularity slightly decreased, the Republican elephant sounded his trumpet.
The impeachment hearings became a reality, and the issue of televised hearings became a bi-partisan tug of war. The central question, however, appears to be what purpose would be served for the media to broadcast live at the House proceedings? As Charles L. Black, Luce Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale University Law School, observes:
I would...most strenuously advocate that radio, television, and cameras have no more place in this solemn business than they have in any other trial, and for the same reasons. There is no point in inflicting humiliation greater than that inflicted by the mere fact of impeachment. Nothing solid is added to public information by making a continuing spectacle of a trial.(19)
Furthermore, the coverage would enhance the promotion of congressional grandstanding, all Representatives in turn staging their finest performance for the benefit of their constituents, thereby insuring their seat in the next election.
The live broadcast was applauded by most Republican Congressional Representatives and treated as a hard won victory. However, it would not be a victory without spoils. As the hearings dragged on, and the American public listened to one pompous filibuster after another, they grew weary of the raging moralistic conviction of the President on the House floor. Concurrently, the tabloid shock value of the President's salacious relationship with Miss Lewinsky dimmed considerably. The focus of the American people turned from the President's pubescent behavior, to the House Leaders' furious condemnation of his morals and subsequent ability to govern this country.
This stage in the hearings becomes an important and pivotal time for the Republicans. The elephant, still vocal, began his charge with the full thrust of the hunt, not realizing, that he would also become the hunted.
In late August, the President apologized to all concerned and asked for forgivness. On September 11, 1998, at a prayer breakfast he laments, "I want my family, friends, staff, Monica Lewinsky and her family, and the American people to know that the sorrow I feel is genuine" (qtd. in www.usatoday.com."). As a Christian country, with this singular act of omission, the public's hearts began to soften toward the President and to become indignant toward the conservative leaders. As the Bible affirms, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to cast stones" (John 8:7).
Immediately, Clinton's standing in the public's eyes escalated. According to one poll, the President's popularity rose to 65 percent (cnn usa today gallup poll)! Within days, leaders of the Republican party were in turmoil. Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia), one of the most powerful Republicans on the hill, stepped down from his position as Speaker of the House. The most outspoken supporters of the Conservative party and rabid Clinton antagonists, known as the Religious Right, held a conference of leaders in Colorado Springs, Co. In that meeting, the prophet Cindy Jacobs reveals:
...God is angry at the church for not interceding for Clinton. He placed him in office and if the church would have prayed, he could have gone the opposite way of what he did. He said if a solid christian man had been in the office and we hadn't prayed the results would have been similar."(Elijah List)(pg5).
With the loss of the Religous Right, as well as many middle of the road Conservatives, the Republican party fared poorly in the election in November. Indeed, the elephant had been mortally wounded, but valiantly struggled to regain his strength.
The House continued to trumpet the evils of the President at the impeachment hearings on national television, despite the fact that they had lost their audience.
In the end, the President is impeached, but at what cost? The Conservative party is in total disarray, their image of lower taxes and less government tarnished. As one GOP pollster, Frank Luntz states, " The Republican party is the party of Monica Lewinsky" (usa today). Judicial Watch, a conservative legal group, called the Representatives "conspirators," and the whole hearing a "sham." The Republican party's polls are the lowest in twenty years.
The short-lived Conservative victory to televise the hearings is debated continually. As Everette Dennis, noted professor of media managment expresses:
"The White house scandal is the first story of potentially great public consequence in the era of the Internet and mega-channel cable television...In the midst of this constant bombardment of information, how well is the public being served in getting useful, reliable news in a context that makes sense? Not very, it seems." (Newsday).
In retrospect, the outcome of the hearings would not have been so politically damaging to the conservatives had they not been televised for the public to witness. We are, after all, conditioned early on to believe only half of what we read. The Republicans took the rope, and as unfortunate as it is, used it to hang themselves. Hence, the elephant is dead...long live the elephant.
The Bible Revised Standard Version. John 8:7.
Black, Charles L. Impeachment New Haven and London, Yale University Press 1974.
Clinton qtd. www.usatoday.com. February 2.1999.
Elijah List, National School of Prophets. Juno E Mail February 13,1999.
Luntz, Frank. USA Today Editorial by Jill Lawrence. February 2, 1999.