Seeking a way out

ANDREW PHILLIPS October 5 1998

Seeking a way out

ANDREW PHILLIPS October 5 1998

Seeking a way out




I know I can’t be with you I do what I have to do And I have sense to recognize but I don’t know how to let you go

—Sarah McLachlan, Do What You Have to Do

Bill Clinton and Monica Lewis, it turns out, had more in common than their mutual fondness for socalled intimate contact in the now-infamous little hallway adjacent to the Oval Office. Last Nov. 13, Lewis visited the President in his private study off the hallway.

She offered him her customary service—oral sex—but he declined. Mexican President Ernest Cedilla was visiting, and Clinton had to rush off to a state dinner. But as she waited for her on-again, off-again lover, Lewis noticked what she took to be another bond beteen them. He had Sarah McLuhan?s’ latest CD, Surfacing, and so did she. Lewis

found the fifth cut, Do What You Have to Do, particularly poignant. “Whenever I listen to song #5,1 think of you,” she wrote in a note to Clinton. Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor who has turned the Clinton-Lewinsky coupling into the most acute political crisis in the United States in a generation, is nothing if not a methodical man. So it is not surprising that buried in the massive evidence gathered by Starr’s office and made public last week by the U.S. House of Representatives are the complete lyrics

from Surfacing, including the words that Lewinsky found so moving.

There was more—much, much more. A wrist-straining total of 3,183 pages of testimony, transcripts, notes, letters, e-mail, charts, telephone logs and photographs—more information, perhaps, than has been gathered about any sexual relationship in history. Thanks to Starr’s diligent researchers, Americans could read scrawled notes revealing that early on the morning of July 19, 1996,


Clinton had so-called phone sex with Lewinsky and exclaimed “Well, good morning!” at the climactic moment. They could read Lewinsky’s increasingly frantic notes to Clinton as he tried to end their relationship (“I need you right now not as a president, but as a man. PLEASE be my friend”). And they could ponder the significance of what Starr’s prosecutors gravely referred to as “the Vancouver bear”—a marble carving of a bear’s head that Clinton bought during a summit meeting there and gave to Lewinsky three days after Christmas of 1997. Deep into Lewinsky’s testimony before Starr’s grand jury, the documents show, they questioned her about the gift:

Q: When the President gave you the Vancouver bear on the 28th, did he say anything about what it means?

A: I believe he said that the bear is the Indian symbol for strength, just. .. you know, and to be strong like a bear.

Q: And did you interpret that as be strong in your decision to continue to conceal the relationship?

A: No.

Americans could also judge their president as he gave what may turn out to be the performance of his political life—four hours and 14 minutes of videotaped testimony in which he gave his version of events to the grand jury. The testimony, broadcast live on television, showed Clinton alternately contrite, combative and cunning. “I’d give anything in the world not to have to admit what I’ve had to admit today,” he said sorrowfully as he finally owned up to what he had denied for months—“inappropriate intimate contact” with the onetime White House intern. He insisted that he had not lied in an earlier sworn statement when he denied having “sexual relations” with Lewinsky, on the grounds that repeated bouts of oral sex did not fall under the definition he was given. He spoke kindly of Lewinsky as “basically a good girl,” and lashed out at the political enemies he said were behind attempts to expose his private life: “They just thought they would take a wrecking ball to me and see if they could do some damage.”

It was a clever, agile performance—made all the more effective by erroneous advance reports that Clinton would at one point explode in anger at the painfully personal questions and storm out of the White House Map Room, where Starr’s team interrogated him on Aug. 17. Instead, he maintained control, knowing full well that the session was being taped and would in all likelihood eventually be made public. A close reading of his words shows a man bob-

With a boost in the polls, Clinton tries to head off impeachment

bing and weaving to avoid at almost any cost admitting that he had lied—such as claiming that he had not really been alone with the woman with whom he had 10 sexual encounters, according to his definition of “alone.” That paralleled his tortuous, often graphically phrased locutions on the topic of what constituted sex—such as whether the “deponent” (meaning himself, when he gave a deposition) was the one performing or receiving oral sex. But most Americans, it turned out, came away with the impression of a man defending himself as best he could from a humiliating inquisition into his sex life.

Clinton is famous for his comebacks— starting when he was thrown out by voters as governor of Arkansas after a single term in 1980, then worked relentlessly to win back the office. Public reaction to the unprecedented spectacle of a president cross-examined on television and the massive release of documents suggested that he may be engineering the biggest comeback of all. Starr’s unvarnished 445-page report might not have convinced voters that the President was liable for impeachment on 11 counts of perjury, obstructing justice and tampering with witnesses, as the independent counsel argued. But actually seeing Clinton defending his deceit and evasions on camera, went the logic, would surely change minds. Indeed it did, but not in the way that the President’s opponents, and most of the media, had confidently predicted.

Clinton’s job-approval rating jumped yet again—to 60 per cent in an ABC poll, 66 per cent on CNN and 68 per cent in a CBS survey. Most disheartening for his opponents, a poll by The New York Times found the beginnings of a backlash against Starr, Republicans in Congress and the House judiciary committee, which is considering whether to hold a formal impeachment inquiry into the President’s conduct. The Republicans who control the committee decided to make public Clinton’s video testimony, and the thousands of pages of documents supporting Starr’s report, in the face of Democratic objections that it would not be fair to the President.

The Times poll found that most voters, faced with the enormous document dump, turned their annoyance against the people pushing the material out. Most said they disapprove of the way the committee is handling the affair; three-quarters did not think it was necessary to make the video public; and 43 per cent said Congress should drop the whole Lewinsky matter, compared with only 27 per cent who want impeachment hearings and 26 per cent who want the President censured by Congress. And Starr was damaged when the White House pointed out that his voluminous report did not include Lewinsky’s statement to the grand jury that “no one

ever asked me to lie, and I was never promised a job for my silence.”

The news was not all good for Clinton. The gap between Americans’ evaluation of his job performance and their judgment of him as an individual has never been wider. Another survey by independent pollster John Zogby found that half the voters are ashamed that he is president, while only 34 per cent are proud. But Americans have apparently concluded that what they want is an effective manager, not a moral role model. “The public isn’t ready for impeachment, and any quick movement towards that will backfire,” Zogby said in an interview. In fact, Republicans are set to press forward. Early next week— on Oct. 5 or 6—the House judiciary committee will vote on whether to go ahead with a formal impeachment inquiry. With Republicans holding two-thirds of the seats, that is considered a near certainty.

Then, the full House will vote by Oct. 9—and again, the Republican majority is expected to support an inquiry. That means Americans will vote in midterm elections on Nov. 3 with the Lewinsky affair still hanging over them.

If the Democrats suffer major losses then, the party could turn against Clinton. But last week, they were clearly buoyed by the polls. Democrats who only a few days earlier were talking of Clinton’s resignation suddenly stopped.

A congressional aide, who had said a week earlier that dozens of Democratic congressmen privately wanted the President to quit, confided that many had changed their minds. "They’re probably glad they didn’t go public last week,” he said. And Albert Wynn, a Maryland Democrat and strong Clinton supporter, said the scandal is “losing its legs.”

Clinton himself was energized.

Asked by a reporter if he sees “any way out of an impeachment inquiry,” he reprised the fingerwagging he made famous in January when he flatly denied having “sexual relations with that woman —Ms. Lewinsky.” He recited his agenda of saving social security and increasing funding for education, and said “the people in Washington” should focus on those issues, not on Lewinsky. Hillary Clinton aggressively returned to her husband’s defence, phoning some Democratic congressmen to argue that his failings do not warrant impeachment and campaigning for Democrats in five states last week. As the party’s most popular national figure now, she stuck the knife into Congress whenever she could. In Seattle, she told a cheering Democratic audience that the Republicans were “doing stuff that doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in the long-term future of America.” Even at a stop in Sheridan, Colo., where she toured a 75year-old elementary school, she managed to blame Congress for dividing the nation and ignoring important issues such as education.

At the same time, the White House let it be known that the President is ready to accept some form of punishment short of removal from office—likely a censure by Congress combined with a financial penalty. Republicans dismiss that as meaningless, as well as premature. “Lor anybody to talk about doing anything before we finish the

Hillary Clinton aggressively came to her husband’s defence

investigative process simply puts the cart before the horse,” said House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But censure gives Democrats something to unite around that would also satisfy the public’s need to see Clinton chastised. Increasingly, they are targeting the high-profile Gingrich as the Republican bad guy standing in the way. White House spokesman Mike McCurry said the Speaker would bear the blame for a process that could “drag on and on and on endlessly.” Almost lost in the political crossfire were the new details about the relationship between Lewinsky and Clinton contained in the documents made public last week. She spent two days before the

grand jury, telling her story in exhaustive detail. She was clearly obsessed with the President, calling him her “sexual soul mate,” and saying: “He always made me smile when I was with him. He was sunshine. ... I just thought he was just this incredible person and when I looked at him I saw a little boy.”

The documents show that Starr’s investigators gathered massive amounts of evidence to corroborate Lewinsky’s story— helped by her practice of methodically recording every contact she had with the President, in person, by phone or by letter. There are notes from her to Clinton, including one from June, 1997, which begins “Dear Handsome” but quickly reveals her feelings about being pushed away: “I feel disposable, used and insignificant.” Another, written on her computer, reads: “bill, i loved you with all of my heart, i wanted to be with you all of the time.” And later, in November, 1997, as Clinton continues to keep her away: “I believe the time has finally come for me to throw in the towel. ... I can’t £ take it any more.” She did man| age to see him again several more g times, though, to enlist his help in « getting a job in New York City £ and, finally, to collect the “VancouS ver bear” and a bagful of other Christmas presents.

Lor him, the relationship may have started as a titillating diversion from weightier matters, then turned into a potentially dangerous entanglement. Lor her it was clearly the most important thing in the world. She remembered virtually everything, and helped Starr’s team construct an 11-page chart setting out every contact between her and the President. The detail is overwhelming, and it did not stop with last week’s release. This week, the judiciary committee is set to make public yet more documents. When Starr sent his report to Capitol Hill on Sept. 9, he delivered 18 boxes of material. Last week’s documents came from just two of the containers. The other 16 contain tens of thousands more pages of transcripts—including the grand jury testimony of Clinton’s secretary, Betty Currie, and his friend Vernon Jordan, who helped Lewinsky with her job search. There are also audiotapes of Lewinsky’s calls made by her former friend Linda Tripp, which are due to be released in edited form. Lor Americans, it is likely to be way too much information about a matter most just want to forget. □