Monica Lewinsky is sharing a cheeseburger and fries with her friend Linda Tripp in a suburban Washington hotel. It is
Jan. 13 and unbeknownst to Lewinsky,
Tripp is wearing a concealed microphone and their conversation is being recorded by FBI agents. At one point, Lewinsky says she is planning to swear that she never had sex with Bill Clinton. The meticulously compiled evidence collected by independent counsel Kenneth Starr details the conversation that followed:
Tripp: What is the definition of sex?
Lewinsky: Intercourse... I never had intercourse. I did not have a sexual relationship.
Tripp: Oh, you’ve been around him too long.
And on and on and on, for three volumes and a total of 4,610 pages. The final load of testimony, transcripts, notes, phone logs and photographs made public last week by the House of Representatives committee looking into the Clinton-Lewinsky coupling adds little more than details and texture to a story in which all too much is known. Lewinsky’s conversation with Tripp shows that the onetime White House intern, though mourning the end of her relationship with the President, had come to share his idiosyncratic definition of what constitutes “sexual relations” (not the oral sex Lewinsky performed on Clinton 10 times). It shows Lewinsky urging Tripp to lie about her and Clinton, saying: ‘Telling the truth could get you in trouble. I don’t know why you would want to do that.” And it shows her alternately enraged at being dumped by Clinton and worried she might suffer retaliation from officials around him. “I wouldn’t cross these people for fear of my life,” she tells Tripp.
Not a pretty picture—of any of the participants in the scandal that has paralyzed Clinton’s presidency. And it doesn’t get any better. Dick Morris, the President’s onetime political strategist, tells Starr’s grand jury the White House runs what he calls a “secret police” operation against women involved with Clinton. Sidney Blumenthal, a senior White House adviser, provides the most creative explanation for the Lewinsky connection. In his account to the grand jury,
Blumenthal says Hillary Clinton told him that her husband was being unfairly attacked for “his ministry to a troubled person,” something he does “out of religious
conviction and personal temperament.” And Lewinsky, in a phone conversation that Tripp recorded, quotes Clinton as
saying: “I have an empty life except for my work, and it’s a f—g obsession.” Tripp responds: “He said that?” To which Lewinsky says: “Right. And then I said, Well, don’t you get any warmth and da da da from your wife?” Tripp: “You didn’t.” Lewinsky: “I did. He said, ‘Of course I do.’ ”
All that would be nothing but low-grade titillation if the stakes were not so high. Starr contends that the report he sent to Congress on Sept. 9, along with last week’s supporting evidence and tens of thousands of other pages that will remain sealed, proves there are 11 grounds for impeaching Clinton—including perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power. So Clinton’s supporters and opponents are fighting trench warfare on the terrain of Starr’s voluminous evidence. The White House last week pounced on what it said are serious omissions in Starr’s report to Congress. Why, officials asked, did the prosecutor leave out testimony contradicting the accusation that Clinton tried to buy Lewinsky’s silence? The President’s men noted that both Betty Currie, his secretary, and Vernon Jordan, his close friend, testified that they tried to help the former intern
get a job without being told to do so by Clinton—yet none of that made it into the report. And the White House painted Tripp as the chief villain in the drama. The tapes, they argued, show her manipulating Lewinsky—pushing her to demand a job and badgering her to say that Jordan was acting on Clinton’s orders.
This week the political battle will be joined in earnest. The House judiciary committee was scheduled to decide on Oct. 5 whether to recommend a formal impeachment inquiry to the full House. All 21 Republicans on the 36-member committee were expected to support an inquiry with no deadline and an open mandate—modelled on the one that investigated the Watergate scandal 25 years ago. But Democrats on the committee made it clear last week that they will reject that. They proposed a plan of their own, a narrowly focused inquiry that would begin on Oct. 12 with hearings on what kind of offence could
lead to the impeachment of a president, and end by Nov. 25. Without a date for wrapping up its work, said their leader, Michigan Democrat John Conyers, “this proceeding could turn into a year-long—two years— politicized fishing expedition.”
The Democrats were sure to lose a vote on their proposal in the judiciary committee. But putting it forward will help them in their attempts to paint the impending impeachment inquiry as simply a partisan Republican attack on Clinton. That, in turn, will make it easier for the Democrats to maintain party discipline when the full House votes on whether to go ahead with an inquiry. That vote must be held by Friday, Oct. 9, when Congress is set to adjourn so that members can go home to campaign for midterm elections on Nov. 3. Only then will they find out for sure how American voters feel about the scandal they have heard much too much about. □
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