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Lunchtime diversion is difficult to digest


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 12, 1998

Andre Roth stuck his head out of the restaurant kitchen with a grin of anticipation. "Ah, the report!" he called out, kissing his fingertips and then flinging them open.

More coverage:
Full text of Starr's report

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White House reacts: Read the rebuttal text via AP [part one and two]

Capitol Hill: Congress sees through party-colored glasses

Locally: Reaction of Floridians in Congress

On the Net: Lurid details of affair disgust many

Troxler: Lunchtime diversion is difficult to digest

Special forum: What's your take on the crisis?

"If you play, you pay!" he laughed. Then, suddenly mournful: "He has hurt me very much." Andre sounded hurt.

Half of the lunch customers Friday at Cafe by the Bay, on S Howard Avenue in Tampa, sat with their backs to the television hanging in the corner, even if they were eating alone. They focused on their food.

But the rest kept our eyes on the screen. Andre, the chef and half-owner, was looking forward to the imminent release of the report on President Clinton. So he kept peeking out.

A patron who faced away from the television looked up at us and shook his head. "Who's running the business?" he asked. It turned out he meant the country, not the restaurant. His name was Manny Elkind, a manager of real estate investments, and he was more concerned about the stock market.

"Let him get back to work," Elkind said of Clinton. "Let him work back to even. This is his chance to prove he can be president."

The waitress, Debbie Reedy, scurried by with an order. "I don't pay any attention to it," she snorted. "Each to his own." She dropped off the food, wiped off a table, grabbed an empty glass and scooped it full of ice. "The way I look at it, he's human. It's between him and his wife."

But Andre was less forgiving. A native of Albania, he moved here 20 years ago. "I lived in Turkey, too," he related, "and when I came to this country, I thought, "Thank God, I'm in a democracy.' But this is a little hard to digest."

Ashley Roth, Andre's wife and co-owner of the cafe, burst in through the back door and grabbed the remote control. "Whaddya think, whaddya think?" she asked excitedly. She started clicking around for more information.

Andre turned down the background music. Ashley turned up the TV. The restaurant fell silent and watched.

The scene switched to President Clinton's prayer breakfast, and his latest apology. Two customers laughed as Clinton asked for mercy, and soon everybody resumed conversation while the speech went on.

. . . my repentance is genuine . . .

"Wasn't there something about a cigar?"

. . . I ask that God gives me a clean heart . . .

"It's amazing how easy you can cave when there are 36 boxes of evidence," said a lawyer in the crowd.

At this point even Debbie the waitress sat down and started watching, unable to resist. On the screen, Clinton put on a pair of eyeglasses. "Those are drugstore glasses!" Ashley cried.

Clinton finished his remarks. "That's not bad," I said to Ashley. "No," she agreed. "It's just late."

At 1:40 p.m., the TV reporter started delivering the first few pages: possible grounds for impeachment. Lurid sexual details. And, by the way, the dress stain matched the test results.

Despite the previous joking, a few customers gasped. Ashley, walking past my table just as the details started emerging, took a little dip, sort of a curtsy, as if to say: There you go.

Andre sat down at the cash register, rapt. Debbie sat down beside him. Nobody said a word as the coverage switched to the White House briefing.

Andre walked back to the kitchen, shaking his head. "He did it," he said sadly. "He did it." He had known it already, but there was something about hearing it officially that seemed to make a difference to him.

Still, nobody spoke in favor of resignation or impeachment. Ashley said he should be censured. Everybody nodded. One by one, the customers paid their checks and drifted back out into the early sunny afternoon. Outside, there was just the slightest hint, the first early sign of cooler weather, the promise of relief, of better things to come.


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