A colleague of mine at Hill and Knowlton had an experience the day Ken Starr testified before the House Judiciary Committee. I think it perfectly exemplifies the PR nightmare which has been facing the Republican Party leadership, ever since Starr and the GOP began this sordid enterprise.
My friend was changing planes in Miami that day, bound ultimately for Washington, and was required, in order to get to his departure gate, to pass at least 30 others. There was, he observed, a TV screen at each gate he passed, tuned to CNN and broadcasting the Starr hearing.
At each screen, he noted that a mere handful of two or three passengers were idly watching the impeachment proceedings.
At last he reached the gate for the flight to Washington. There, unlike at all the other gates, a crowd of at least a few hundred had jammed in front of the screen and was following the proceedings with avid interest.
Some even stayed to watch after the flight was called.
It would be difficult to demonstrate the enormous concern gap between Washington and the rest of the country over this issue, which for months has dominated the media and filled all-news cable TV wall-to-wall.
From the beginning, it was easy for the White House spinmeisters to convince a great majority of voters this was merely a story about 'sex,' and the more Ken Starr pushed it (thus demonstrating he had no arrows left in his quiver on such 'serious' matters as Whitewater, the Travel Office and the FBI Files), the easier it became, not only to label it in the public mind as a 'sex scandal,' but to create a believable image of Starr himself as sex-obsessed. After all, when your lead players are Linda Tripp, Lucianne Goldberg and the herd of 'experts' on cable TV, it is hard to convince people you are serious, and the election last month, with the consequent fall of Newt Gingrich, merely confirmed the easy PR victory for the President and his allies.
In a way, not only have the hot-eyed pro-impeachment zealots lost this PR battle, but they have, by the magnitude of the popular rejection, created another danger - people are now far less likely to believe any 'crisis' story coming out of Washington (Y2K? Social Security? Iraq?).
1998 may thus come to be known as the year the Washington media, by crying 'Wolf!' too loudly and far too often, lost whatever respect remained.
As British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin once observed, it is only the harlot who has traditionally claimed the role of power without responsibility.