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Camera Lens Has Its Limits

The man who mastered the TV town hall is set to deliver perhaps his most important defense through the lens of a camera.

When President Clinton sits down at the White House on Monday to answer prosecutors' questions about the Monica Lewinsky matter, he also will be answering to a select TV audience of 23 grand jurors watching him on a courthouse video screen a mile away.

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If anyone is qualified to defend himself in this format, it is Clinton. In addition to his extensive political experience with the camera, he also has testified twice via videotape for Whitewater-related criminal trials in 1996.

"Part of the reason why he's president is that he's awfully good in those settings," said Stephan Landsman, a DePaul University law professor who specializes in social sciences and juries. "The hallmark of our presidents is that they do come off well in the televised context."

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Still, testifying from afar is no substitute for being there.

"Doing this via videotape is distancing," said Paul Lisnek, a Chicago-based jury consultant and trial lawyer. "Jurors can't get the same emotional impact as if he was in the room."

Political and media experts agree that the TV screen can't match the power of a personal appearance - particularly in the case of Clinton, whom even detractors credit with strong personal magnetism.

"I just find him not at all believable on television," said Republican consultant Eddie Mahe. "He's much stronger in person."

Democratic consultant Dane Strother agreed that "it's always better to communicate with somebody in person," but he said there are special considerations to be taken into account in Mr. Clinton's situation.

Rather than "plopping down" in a grand jury seat like dozens of other witnesses, Mr. Clinton can project special stature by being beamed in from the White House, the consultant said.

"It certainly does differentiate him from the rest of the witnesses, but it's much more difficult to connect" with the jurors, Strother said. "It's a tradeoff."

Jury consultants say that testifying via television offers the president a number of advantages.

For one, they say, jurors may not be able to see "body language" that would offer clues if Mr. Clinton becomes uncomfortable or nervous.

Witnesses who are feeling stressed may wring their hands or look down or give other cues that aren't caught by the TV camera, said Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, a jury consultant and managing director of jury services for FTI Consulting in California.

"It's a hge advantage for him, because you only see it through the eyes of the camera lens," Dimitrius said. "You don't see the entire picture, the peripheral vision."

Furthermore, Dimitrius said, Mr. Clinton doesn't have to worry about jurors immediately shooting back questions that follow up on his testimony. Because of his remote location, any questions relayed by the grand jurors would be delayed.

"It's going to buy him time to react more appropriately," Dimitrius said.

Lisnek said there may be a countervailing advantage for prosecutor Kenneth Starr in Mr. Clinton's agreement to testify from a remote location.

With the questioning taking place at a distance, Lisnek said, prosecutors can be tougher on Mr. Clinton without risking turning off the grand jury.

"It would be difficult for Starr to attack him in any way in front of the grand jury," Lisnek said. "Television will help distance it. So there can be a more stern voice."

For all of the touchy-feely talk about whether Mr. Clinton will "bond" with the grand jury, the president also must keep in mind that the substance of what he says and how he comes across to prosecutors is just as important, if not more so.

If the jury does not vote to indict Mr. Clinton - and many legal scholars believe a sitting president cannot be indicted - then the chief value of the president's appearance lies in how prosecutors use it in preparing any impeachment report to Congress.

Even for the limited audience of prosecutors, legal experts say, the way Mr. Clinton presents himself still matters.

"It is a mistake to think that in any situation your performance is not being evaluated and that all that counts is the written word," Landsman said. "The prosecutors are watching this man. The battle of wills, the struggle for credibility is in part in their hearts and minds."


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