World

Sex, lies—and a loss of trust

The President finally admits to a liaison with Lewinsky

ANDREW PHILLIPS August 31 1998
World

Sex, lies—and a loss of trust

The President finally admits to a liaison with Lewinsky

ANDREW PHILLIPS August 31 1998

Sex, lies—and a loss of trust

World

CLINTON’S CRISES

ANDREW PHILLIPS

The President finally admits to a liaison with Lewinsky

On the morning of Jan. 21, as the sex scandal that threatens to over-whelm his presidency was breaking out all around him, Bill Clinton placed a phone call to a man who had gotten him out of some tight spots before. He called Dick Morris, his former political adviser who himself had been disgraced by an illicit sexual relationship. As Morris related their conversation last week, Clinton was shaken and close to tears. The stories flying around about him and young Monica Lewinsky were false, he insisted, but he admitted that he did do “something” with her. “Ever since I was elected President, I’ve tried not to do this kind of thing,” he told Morris. “But I just slipped up with that girl.”

Some slip—a tawdry, 18-month liaison that finally last week forced Clinton to look into the TV cameras and come as close as he could manage to apologizing for committing adultery and then lying about it. That was plenty bad, but Morris’s account of Clinton’s early reaction to the scandal made clear just how nakedly political it was. The President, he said, briefly considered coming clean with a public confession and appeal for forgiveness.

That would have been refreshingly straightforward, and would have spared the country seven acrimonious months of charge and counter-charge over l’affaire Lewinsky. But no.

First, Morris and Clinton agreed, they should conduct a poll to find out whether Americans were prepared to forgive their President. The answer came back no. And so Clinton did not fess up, but instead denied all and sent his supporters out to attack those who doubted him. Only last week, backed into a legal corner by his relentless foe, special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, did he finally admit publicly that he had had an “inappropriate” relationship with the young intern and say he was sorry—sort of.

The speech—perhaps the most important four minutes and seven seconds of Clinton’s political life—was bound to be a turning point. Before he gave it, his advisers had clearly hoped that, as he had done so often, he would seize the moment and turn looming disaster into an opportunity for redemption. Americans, went their mantra, are a forgiving people. Given the chance, they wanted nothing more than an end to the appalling spectacle of a President tarnished by constant chatter about “sex acts” steps from the Oval Office, and of “genetic material” indiscreetly left on a dress. Here’s the ball, his advisers in effect told Clinton; hit it out of the park.

Instead, as the near-universal condemnation of his address showed, the President only dug himself a deeper hole. He disappointed his friends, enraged his more moderate opponents—who might have been persuaded to let him off with a slap on the wrist— and fully lived up to his reputation as a man to whom the truth does not come easily. Before The Speech and Clinton’s four hours of testimony by video camera before Starr’s grand jury, there was a possibility that last week might have marked the beginning of the end of the scandal. Afterwards, it became clear that it will go on and on for many more months—with Starr wrapping up his investigation and the Republican-dominated Congress weighing whether his findings are serious enough to warrant censuring, or even impeaching, the President.

Even if Clinton lasts his full term in office, the scandal has already cost him grievously. More than most presidents, he has read deeply in American history and mused openly about his legacy, how future historians will one day judge the Clinton years. The Lewinsky affair has already consumed most of his sixth year in office, generally regarded as the last time a twoterm president can hope for big accomplishments, and threatens to stretch well beyond that.

The open questioning of Clinton’s motives after last week’s missile strikes against Sudan and Afghanistan emphasized just how much his credibility has suffered. As presidential historian Robert Dallek of Boston University put it in an interview: “For presidents, trust is the coin of the realm. You need it to have any credibility, and how can you create a groundswell in the country or the Congress for anything if you have no credibility?” With Clinton’s trustworthiness so badly undermined, concluded Dallek, “Frankly, I think he is largely crippled now.” Only one Democratic congressman, Paul McHale of Pennsylvania, and called on the President to resign. Others stayed quiet or voiced their anger under cover of anonymity, like the three-term Democratic congressman who said bluntly: “No one’s going to put their ass on the line for Clinton—not after this.”

The President’s decision to tell his story to the grand jury came on July 29—the day after Lewinsky cut her deal to testify in return for immunity from prosecution. But it was only in the few days leading up to his appearance that he apparently came to grips with exactly what he would say—to the jury, to the public, to his daughter, Chelsea, and to his wife. From the moment the scandal erupted in late January, Hillary Clinton has been crucial to her husband’s survival. She stood beside him in the Roosevelt Room of the White House as he wagged his finger at the TV cameras and defiantly, unambiguously declared: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time, never.” Then, she took to the airwaves herself and laid the whole mess on a so-called vast right-wing conspiracy out to bring down her husband. She provided him with vital political cover, especially among women voters. If Hillary can accept whatever happened, went the line, then so can we.

‘NOT THE BEST DAY’

“I was present in the Roosevelt Room in January when the President categorically denied any sexual involvement with Monica Lewinsky. I believed him. His remarks last evening leave me with a deep sense of sadness in that my trust in his credibility has been badly shattered.” —Senator Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and close Clinton ally

“The President entered into a morally repugnant relationship, he lied under oath and he almost certainly used government resources and employment opportunities to encourage Monica Lewinsky’s silence....With great sadness, I have concluded that President Clinton should resign or face impeachment.” —Representative Paul McHale, Pennsylvania Democrat

“Some Republicans and [prosecutor Kenneth] Starr want us and the American people to know every lurid detail of the President’s sex life. Quite frankly, we don’t want to know. It’s almost as if they won’t be happy until they put the President in stocks and have a public flogging.” —Senator Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat

“Clearly, this is not the best day in Mrs. Clinton’s life. This is a time that she relies on her strong religious faith. She’s committed to her marriage and loves her husband and daughter very much and believes in the President, and her love for him is compassionate and steadfast.” —Hillary Clinton’s spokeswoman, Marsha Berry

“Men like Mr. Clinton do not take responsibility for their conduct because it is the right thing to do. They do it, if at all, because they are forced to.” —Paula Jones, who sued Clinton for sexual harassment

Clinton has always been famed for having perfect political pitch-but this time his instincts failed him. ‘What a jerk/ snapped Senator Orrin Hatch.

For that approach to work, however, Hillary Clinton had to believe Bill’s denials—or at least be seen to believe them. Otherwise, she was simply complicit in his deception. So by Monday, as the President endured a gruelling afternoon of cross-examination by Starr and his investigators, the White House began to put out the story that it was only very late in the previous week, or even over the weekend, that Hillary had learned the full extent of her husband’s betrayal from his own lips. He and Lewinsky had begun a relationship in the fall of 1995. It became intimate and went on for some 18 months, even after White House aides became alarmed at Lewinsky’s unusual familiarity with the President and exiled her to a low-level job at the Pentagon.

That account may or may not be true. It hinges, in large part, on one of the central mysteries of this drama: the nature of the relationship between Bill and Hillary Clinton. Can it really be, wondered many, that a smart, savvy lawyer like Hillary Clinton could believe her husband’s professions of innocence—when his weakness for other women is legendary and just about no one else in Washington bought his story? Perhaps. Otherwise, would she really have said publicly that for a President to commit adultery and then lie about it would be “a very serious offence”? But whether she believed him or not, the idea that he duped her is central to their story. “It’s a way of salvaging her credibility, and creating a fund of sympathy for her,” says Dallek. Once again, those who choose to stand behind Clinton can repeat the line: if Hillary can stand it, so can we.

At any rate, by Sunday morning she was back publicly at his side, attending church and then helping to draft the speech he would give the following night. By most accounts she toughened it—insisting that the President add a scathing assault on Starr to the words of contrition drafted by his political advisers.

(There are good reasons for believing that. Starr has pursued her as well as her husband, forcing her to testify four times as part of his four-year inquiry into the Whitewater scandals. Part of her anger at her husband, say some observers, may well come from fury that his sexual misbehavior has left them open to renewed assault from their common archenemy.) By late Sunday evening, Jesse Jackson, who has become the Clintons’ unofficial spiritual counsellor, was at the White House to talk to the whole family. According to the account Jackson later provided on every available network, the President was repentant but comforted by the words of Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, 0 God . . . and cleanse me of my sin.” Hillary, said Jackson, was humiliated. “But their marriage,” he added, “will survive all this.”

The next day, Clinton had to sit through the four hours of close questioning from Starr and half a dozen prosecutors in the White House Map Room. Accounts that quickly leaked out agree that the session began in a tense but businesslike fashion: the President read a statement acknowledging that he had had an “inappropriate” relationship with Lewinsky, that he had indeed given her gifts, including a book of poems and a T-shirt, and that they had discussed ways of keeping their liaison secret.

But he did not provide details of what kind of sexual activity went on between him and Lewinsky, who was just 22 when the relationship became intimate. He maintained that he had been truthful last January when he said under oath, in a sexual harassment suit brought by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones, that he had not had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. That all hinges on the definition of sex—Clinton was evidently insisting on an extraordinarily narrow written description in the Jones case that could arguably exclude some acts, such as oral sex, that Lewinsky has said they engaged in. The prurient details of what exactly the two were up to in Clinton’s small private study beside the Oval Office may be distasteful, but they are important to Starr’s case against the President. If he lied about having sex, he may have committed perjury— but there is no way of determining that unless Starr can find out what the two did together. It may also be important politically: there were widespread rumors in Washington last week that Lewinsky has testified to engaging in unorthodox sex acts with Clinton that may not fall under the definition of “sexual relations” he was given in the Jones case, but might well be considered demeaning to women. If that becomes public—and just about everything in this case eventually does—it would further humiliate the President and could cut into his still-strong support among women.

Finally came the speech, while Clinton was still in the afterglow of rage at what he considered Starr’s unjustified prying into the most private aspects of his life. For two days, his advisers had been fighting over just what he should say—with his political aides pressing him to make a clear statement of contrition, his lawyers cautioning him not to say anything that would put him in legal jeopardy, and some hardliners, including Hillary, urging an attack on Starr’s seemingly endless inquiry. The statement he eventually delivered to the more than 67 million Americans who tuned in was, in the words of Stanley Renshon, a political scientist and psychoanalyst at the City University of New York, “classic Bill Clinton.”

He acknowledged that he did have “a relationship with Monica Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong.” But he did not say that he lied in January when he said the opposite; instead, he said only that “I misled people, including even my wife.” He did not apologize, but said that his actions “constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.” And in a phrase that is bound to go down in the history books as a classic example of lawyerly evasion, he insisted that when he told Jones’s lawyers in J anuar y that he did not have a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, “My answers were legally accurate.” Then came a plea for privacy: “Now this matter is between me, the two people I love most, my wife and our daughter, and our God____It’s nobody’s business but ours.” And finally, the blistering assault on Starr, which had the effect of turning a personal appeal for understanding into just another salvo in a political trench war.

Clinton has always been famed for having perfect political pitch—finding exactly the right words in any situation. If the reaction that followed his speech was any guide, Monday night was the moment his instincts failed him. Even supportive Democrats struggled to find something kind to say, while Republicans who had signalled a willingness to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt were scathing. “What a jerk,” snapped Orrin Hatch of Utah, chairman of the Senate’s key judiciary committee.

Ordinary Americans have, by and large, not turned so negative. The blizzard of instant post-speech polls showed Clinton’s job-approval ratings staying high and steady—over 60 per cent. But a survey by ABC News found that fully 73 per cent of voters believe he is not honest and trustworthy, and 58 per cent think he did obstruct justice in the Lewinsky case.

The public’s other heartfelt opinion, that the scandal should now disappear, is definitely not going to be fulfilled. On the morning after Clinton’s speech, Starr was back at work, summoning other witnesses before his grand jury—including Lewinsky for a second appearance. He was, the inevitable leaks indicated, exploring contradictions between her story and the President’s, presumably to see if there is more evidence that he lied or obstructed justice. By the end of September, Starr is expected to deliver a voluminous report on his findings to Congress, a report that itself is almost certain to leak to the media.

And it won’t stop there. Most observers believe Starr will spell out enough evidence of serious wrongdoing by the President to require the House of Representatives judiciary committee to hold hearings on the report That could well lead the House to appoint a special committee to consider impeachment, which in turn would mean televised hearings. Witnesses whose stories have already become familiar through leaks and partial reports—including Lewinsky, her former friend, Linda Tripp, and even the President himself—could be subpoenaed to give evidence in a public replay of the whole messy saga. That would mean many more months of scandal obsession and a presidency dragged further into disrepute. Public attitudes, some predict, could also finally turn against Clinton. “It is well within the realm of possibility that this President may not finish his term of office,” says independent pollster John Zogby. “This is the first time I’m seeing numbers that suggest that option. This is not going away as the President hopes.” In the shorter run, November’s mid-term congressional elections are likely to focus more on the so-called morality issue than had been thought Officially, the Republicans’ tactics are to stay quiet and wait until Starr presents his report. But local candidates are beginning to make Clinton’s extramarital sex and public lies an issue. In North Carolina, a Republican candidate is running the first TV ad focusing on the Lewinsky affair, with a picture of Clinton and the intern and the words: “Scandal after scandal, day after day.” After last week, that seems less like an accusation and more like a simple description of fact.

With WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington

WILLIAM LOWTHER

TRAIL OF DECEIT President Bill Clinton on the record:

JAN. 17,1998_ “I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. I’ve never had an affair with her.” -In his deposition in the Paula Jones suit

JAN. 21_ “There is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship. I didn’t ask anyone to go in there and say something that is untrue.” -In an interview on PBS television’s The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer

JAN. 21_ “I don’t know any more about it than I’ve told you, and any more about it, really, than you do. But I will co-operate. The charges are not true. And I haven’t asked anyone to lie.” -On National Public Radio’s All Things Considered

JAN. 26_ “I want to tell the American people something and I want you to listen to me: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time, never. These allegations are false.” -At a child care event at the White House involving First Lady Hillary Clinton

AUG. 17_ “Indeed, I did have a relationship with Monica Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible. “But I told the grand jury today and I say to you now that at no time did I ask anyone to lie, to hide or destroy evidence or to take any other unlawful action. I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.” -On television, hours after testifying before the grand jury