Despite the sex scandal, his public approval ratings soar
Q: What’s the title of Hillary Clinton’s next book? A: It Takes a Village—to Satisfy my Husband. Q: Why does Bill Clinton invite so many women into the Oval Office? A: To show them the executive branch.
The jokes were coming thick and fast last week—many of them unprintable, most of them distasteful, all of them once unthinkable about a president of the United States. But for the man at the uncomfortable centre of allegations about sex and lies in the White House, the operating procedure was Business As Usual.
Bill Clinton glared into the television cameras and flatly, unequivocally denied that he had ever had “sexual relations” with
Monica Lewinsky, the onetime White
House intern whose taped descriptions of one-on-one sessions with the President just outside the Oval Office set off the firestorm of controversy. Then, at least in public, he resolutely went about doing his job. He delivered the annual state of the union speech to Congress, pledging a litany of measures from a balanced budget to expanded day care, then flew to the Midwest to sell his message far from scandalobsessed Washington. And, reminding Americans of another potential crisis, he pointedly told Iraqi president Saddam Hussein that “you cannot defy the will of the world.”
It was a bravura performance and one that—amazingly—seemed to be working beyond almost anyone’s imagining. Clinton’s standing with American voters, as measured by several opinion polls, stopped the precipitous fall it had begun in the first shock of Lewinsky’s bombshell. Then, it began to rise. By week’s end, one survey, by ABC News, put his approval rating at a staggering 68 per cent—the highest he has ever enjoyed. White House officials, from lowly secretaries to senior aides, shed the air of despondency that hung over them when it appeared that Clinton was unable to fight back effectively. “The mood around here is a thousand-per-cent better,” a long-serving secretary on the White House staff told Maclean’s. ‘What a difference a week makes.” She added: “He’s going to survive. The worst has passed.”
Some political appointees even admitted to feeling somewhat
ashamed that they had ever doubted the President. “Bill Clinton is the best thing that has happened in a long time,” said one, “and Monica Lewinsky won’t even make a footnote when the historians analyze his achievements.” Even the President’s political opponents seemed sobered by his apparent ability to endure the worst. “Failing new, damaging and provable revelations, it will fade away,” conceded a senior Republican senator, the chairman of a major committee. “It’s not going to bring him down. There needs to be a certain passion in both parties to impeach a president, and this issue has failed to generate that passion at this time.” All that, of course, could change—especially if Clinton is eventually shown to have lied about his relationship with Lewinsky, who is now 24. That is at the heart of the issue: in conversations secretly recorded by her onetime friend, Linda Tripp, Lewinsky graphically described having oral sex with the President in the White House, beginning when she was 21. But when lawyers acting for Paula Jones, the Arkansas woman suing Clinton for sexual harassment, subpoenaed her in December, she denied any such relationship. Worse, she allegedly told Tripp, the man she called “the creep” and “the Big He” had urged her to deny the affair.
Despite the publicly upbeat mood, there were signs that Lewinsky’s allegations have taken a toll on senior advisers and members of Clinton’s cabinet. According to one senior White House official, Defence Secretary William Cohen and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin have been particularly disturbed by what they fear could have been a major ethical lapse by the President. Privately, said the source, many of Clinton’s senior advisers believe at least some of what Lewinsky alleges, and think there was sexual contact between her and the President. “A lot of personal respect has been lost,” he said. In order to work for Clinton, he added, aides must think of him as two distinct people. One is the politician with popular policies and awesome political skills. The other is the man with a deeply flawed character and appalling morals.
Clinton began fighting back on Monday, when he issued an emphatic statement denying Lewinsky’s story. With his wife, Hillary, at his side in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, stabbing the air with his right finger for emphasis, he fixed his eye on the cameras and said: “I want you to listen to me. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time, never. These allegations are false.” That was it—his aides insisted that he would have nothing more to say publicly because independent counsel Kenneth Starr is investigating the case.
But it left a host of questions unanswered. What type of relationship did he have with Lewinsky, a young intern only seven years older than his daughter, Chelsea? Why was his voice on her telephone answering machine at home? Why did he give her gifts, apparently including clothes and a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass? What was she doing visiting him at the White House after her job there ended in April, 1996? Why, as the The Washington Post and the The New York Times both reported last week, did she go to see him
in the Oval Office as recently as Sunday, Dec. 28, just 11 days after she received a subpoena from Paula Jones’s lawyers? And, perhaps most importantly, why did Vernon Jordan, one of Clinton’s best friends and one of the most powerful lawyers in Washington, secure job interviews for her at American Express and Revlon—one day after she gave her version of events to Jones’s lawyers in a sworn affidavit? To those questions, White House spokesmen offered only no comment.
It was left to Hillary Clinton to lead the offensive. In two television interviews, she once again played the role that has become all too familiar to her during earlier accusations of philandering against her husband: the loyal wife standing by her man, defending her family from the threat posed by another woman. The allegations, she said, came as a shock to both her and the President. ‘You know, he woke me up on Wednesday morning and said, You’re not going to believe this, but’— and I said, What is this?’ And so, yeah, it came as a very big surprise.”
Rather than shedding any light on the curious relationship between the most powerful man in the world and the young woman from California, however, she went on the attack. The allegations, she said, are part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” that has been hounding Clinton for years. Chief among his enemies, she suggested, is Starr, the special prosecutor who started off investigating the tangled Whitewater land deal scandals and has expanded his probe into whether Clinton lied under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky. Starr is a right-wing Republican who has long been accused by Clinton loyalists of conducting a vendetta against the President, and Hillary Clinton added to that charge. “It’s just a very unfortunate turn of events,” she said, “that we are using the criminal justice system to try to achieve political ends in this country.” Starr, in fact, is vulnerable to such attacks: after four years and nearly $50 million, he has managed to prove no charges against the Clintons in matters arising from Whitewater.
Clinton continued his offensive with a strong state of the union speech, then flew to Illinois and Wisconsin to sell his proposals to voters. There, he saw the first signs that his hang-tough approach was working: cheering crowds who had lined up for hours to see him, and only scattered protesters drawing attention to the embarrassing accusations against him back in Washington. No matter who holds the job, the presidency is a powerful symbol for Americans, and even Clinton’s political rivals clearly saw there was no eagerness for the kind of national trauma that would go with forcing a president out of office. “The American people—they do want to believe the President of the United States,” noted Trent Lott, leader of the Republican majority in the Senate. “They don’t want to see him be impeached or have to resign.” Even the Democratic National Committee reported a surge in grassroots donations to the party from people anxious to support the President.
And Clinton—who has had more than his share of good luck over his career—got some more. An ex-lover of Lewinsky’s, a drama instructor at her former college in Portland, Ore., emerged with a damning portrait of her. Andy Bleiler stood on his lawn with his wife, Kathy, and acknowledged that he had had a five-year affair with Lewinsky. Through their lawyer, Terry Giles, the Bleilers described her as a schemer on the make who befriended Kathy Bleiler at the same time she was having sex with her husband. “They would say she is a young lady obsessed with sex,” said Giles. “She certainly is no victim.” After she gained the White House internship and was preparing to move to Washington, he said, Lewinsky bluntly told Bleiler that she planned to go to the White House and engage in sex. “She said: ‘I’m going to get my presidential knee pads.’ ” And once she was there, Giles said, Lewinsky phoned Bleiler and told him she was having an affair with a top White House official whom she did not identify by name. But, said Giles, Bleiler did not believe her; Lewinsky had “a pattern of twisting facts, especially to enhance
her version of her own self-image.”
That fits the picture of Lewinsky—“that woman,” in Clinton’s dismissive phrase—the White House would like to encourage.
And it is one that may help to explain why women, in particular, seemed to maintain their support for Clinton last week. One Democratic party pollster said in an interview that focus groups of female voters did not sympathize with Lewinsky as a young woman taken advantage of by a much older and more powerful man. Rather, they saw her as a “shark.” Jennifer Laszlo, another Democratic consultant, described the feeling this way: “If there’s anything one woman hates it’s the idea of a younger woman going after a married man. It’s terribly threatening. There’s a big-sister bonding element in this. Monica Lewinsky is really a very unsympathetic character. Women understand what Hillary Clinton is going through.”
Other reasons for Clinton’s support are more straightforward. Trends in the United States have been going in the right direction for several years, producing what some analysts have labelled a “magic moment” of peace and prosperity. Growth remains strong, unemployment is below five per cent, crime rates have plummeted and even the rate of out-of-wedlock births is down. If Clinton takes care of the nation’s business so well, goes the reasoning, then most people will overlook his private business. “That’s the Faustian bargain we made with this guy,” noted political comedian Bill Maher. “You take care of the Dow Jones—and we don’t care what you do with Paula Jones.”
Also coming to Clinton’s aid was an undoubted backlash against the Niagara of media coverage. A Washington research foundation, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, studied the amount of coverage during the first week of the scandal on the evening
The operating procedure was Business As Usual
newscasts of the Big Three networks (ABC, CBS and NBC), and concluded that the Lewinsky story was the media’s “biggest feeding frenzy” ever. Between Jan. 21 and 27, the networks ran 124 stories on the scandal—more even than the 103 they ran during the week following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, last August To be sure, the public ate it up: audiences for the shows soared. But a CNN poll showed that 72 per cent of Americans thought there was just too much Monica, compared with only 22 per cent who thought the media got it about right.
And some of the more lurid stories rushed onto the air or into print in the first heated days of the scandal turned out to be unverified. Many news organizations reported that « Lewinsky had told Linda Tripp on ¡5 tape that she kept a blue dress I stained with the President’s semen. a Investigators, ran the story, would s try to match it with his DNA. Starr’s
office did seize some of Lewinsky’s clothes, but her lawyer, William Ginsburg, flatly denied that such a dress existed. Another widely told story involved Secret Service agents surprising Lewinsky and Clinton in a compromising position in the White House. The Dallas Morning News first reported that I (leading to other stories), then 3 retracted it, and finally retracted its I retraction. The end result: confusion. « The President got good news ¿ on the legal front as well. In Little I Rock, Ark., the judge handling the t Paula Jones suit excluded all % evidence relating to Lewinsky from I those proceedings. Federal Judge Susan Webber Wright, who also barred Jones’s attorneys from calling the President’s Secret Service bodyguards to testify, ruled that evidence about Lewinsky “is not essential to the core issues” in the Jones case, which is to go to trial on May 27. Jones claims that Clinton exposed himself to her and asked her for oral sex in 1991, while he was governor of Arkansas and she was a low-level state clerk. The trial is bound to be another major embarrassment for the President even without dragging Lewinsky’s story into it, and his lawyer, Robert Bennett, hailed Wright’s decision as a major victory. “That means we try the Paula Jones case and not the Monica Lewinsky case,” he said. ‘That’s huge.”
The ruling left Starr overseeing grand jury proceedings in Washington. All last week, he summoned White House officials and others—including Clinton’s personal secretary, Betty Currie, and his former chief of staff, Leon Panetta—to testify before the jury, which fills a function similar to a preliminary hearing in Canada. By week’s end, Lewinsky’s lawyers were still negotiating with Starr’s office, trying to work out a deal that would give their client immunity from prosecution. Lewinsky, it was widely reported, was willing to say she had a sexual relationship with Clinton—but would not say what Starr most wanted to hear: that the President asked her to lie.
When negotiations between the two sides apparently stalled, some observers concluded that Starr may have other evidence of wrongdoing, and thus may not need Lewinsky’s co-operation as badly as once thought. Starr is trying to determine whether he has enough evidence to charge Lewinsky, Clinton or anyone else with a crime. If evidence shows that Clinton did tell Lewinsky to lie under oath about their relationship, or directed anyone else to tell her to lie, he could be charged. But, say most observers, that would be so explosive that the evidence would have to be overwhelming.
In all the static surrounding the Lewinsky case, it was easy to forget that Clinton has a country to run—and a world to watch out for. Even as the scandal consumed Washington, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright flew to Europe to round up support for strong action against Iraq if it does not let UN weapons inspectors resume their search for chemical and biological weapons. Washington last threatened military action in November, but backed off while Russia and France attempted to persuade Saddam Hussein to change his position and allow UN inspectors into all facilities. The Iraqi president did not—and so the rhetoric heated up again, with Albright warning that “the time is fast approaching for fundamental decisions.”
Possible action in the Gulf also gave Prime Minister Jean Chrétien a chance to offer Clinton some encouraging words. The President called Ottawa on Thursday to discuss Iraq. He got only a guarded response on that from Chrétien, who said later he told the President that “we hoped they would find a diplomatic solution to this very difficult problem, but this can’t carry on forever this way.” But the Prime Minister took the opportunity to give his occasional golfing partner a few words of support— politician to politician, and man to man. “I expressed my best wishes in the difficult time he is facing,” Chrétien said. “He’s my colleague and he’s the president of the neighbor nation and the biggest democracy in the world. I want him to be able to carry on his duty the best he can.” In fact, Clinton seemed to be carrying on remarkably well—all things considered.
With WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington