Clinton’s Polls: The Fidel Effect

Today’s New York Times describes Bill Clinton’s bounce in its latest poll as “surprisingly pronounced.” A USA Today survey conveys the similarly heartening news for Democrats that only 29 percent of the public believes that Clinton should be removed from office by impeachment or forced to resign. The orthodox interpretation for these findings is that the Republicans are now paying the political price for overhyping the killer impact of the President’s Monica Marathon grand jury testimony.

But Chatterbox has a different explanation for Clinton’s latest “hand reaching out of the grave” resurrection. Forget the spinners and their expectations games. What mattered most of all was the sheer length of the president’s televised testimony. Think of it. Clinton in close-up was on network TV for four straight hours, uninterrupted by commercials and unmediated by anchormen with their–in Spiro Agnew’s words–“instant analysis and querulous criticism.” No president in history has ever hogged the nation’s TV screens like that. Even Clinton’s logorrhea-prone State of the Union addresses never went more than 90 minutes, and they were constantly punctuated by cutaway shots to sullen Republicans and ecstatic Democrats.

Fidel Castro aside, what world leader ever gets to pre-empt the soap operas for four hours? And this wasn’t North Korean television with the Supreme Leader monotonously reciting phony numbers about the results of the five-year plan for rutabaga production. Clinton got to talk about the most riveting must-watch topic of them all–sex. Small wonder the Times poll shows that 10 percent of those surveyed actually claimed to have viewed the whole thing. (Even Chatterbox ducked out for an hour or so.)

What this proves is the enduring wisdom of Michael Deaver’s approach to handling Ronald Reagan’s image. In Deaver’s view, it didn’t matter what criticisms the TV correspondents mouthed in their voice-overs; all that counted was the Gipper’s smiling face on the evening news. Four days after Clinton’s TV testimony, no one remembers a single off-camera question from Ken Starr’s tag team of prosecutors. Instead, what shines through the latest polls is the enduring visual of an unflappable Clinton sitting there, patiently parsing every question, for a Big Brother-esque four hours.  

–Walter Shapiro