CAN HE SURVIVE?
Allegations of a new sex scandal—and possible perjury—rock Clinton's presidency
To anyone visiting Washington from another country—or planet—last week, it might have made perfect sense to conclude that there are two Bill Clintons. The first is the poised, articulate, intelligent man who has presided over the United States for five years with—as even opponents acknowledge—considerable skill and imagination. He is exceptionally well read, especially on historical issues, delights in complex policy debates, and is fond of quoting from the Scriptures. That Clinton spent part of last week brokering peace efforts in the Middle East in meetings with Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He was, said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “completely focused” on that task.
Then there is the other Bill Clinton—a creation of either scandalous fact, scurrilous fiction, or perhaps a dismaying mixture of both. Fairly or not, this one appears, in his private life, to be a crude, amoral and apparently insatiable sexual predator whose favorite targets are women who are much younger, naive and lower in social standing—and therefore especially vulnerable. And that was the image conveyed to the public last week, as fresh allegations surfaced that Clinton had an affair with a 21-year-old White House intern—and that he and a senior adviser, Ver« non Jordan, then urged the young woman to lie and 5 deny the relationship. Should those claims be § proven, many observers said, they could spell the ï end of Clinton’s presidency. Even his former confi| dant and adviser, George Stephanopoulos, now a t consultant to ABC television, conceded: “If they’re true, they’re not only politically damaging, but it could lead to impeachment proceedings.”
Who is the real Clinton, and can he continue to stand up against the latest storm over his private behavior? At week’s end, the President’s own advisers seemed torn about the answers—as well as the best way to respond to the questions he faces. “It’s turmoil,” one White House aide told Maclean’s. ‘We’ve been told to concentrate on work and not to discuss it, but there’s no way.” Although Clinton denied all allegations, he did so with comments that were brief and sometimes elliptical. As the controversy mushroomed, some aides wanted Clinton to hold a news conference dealing directly with the issue. By that plan, he would respond aggressively to allegations that he had an adulterous affair with the then-intern, Monica Lewinsky—who made the claim in taped conversations with a supposed friend, who turned them over to special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. In those tapes, Lewinsky indicated she was being pressured to lie, and later she denied the affair in a signed affidavit and again to Starr’s investigators. A senior official with close links to the White House told Maclean’s: “The President’s political advisers believe that he must act immediately in some very forceful way to tell the nation exactly what happened.”
But not everyone agreed with that approach. The same source added: “His legal advisers are cautious: they don’t want him to talk now because it could limit their options.” Instead, they urged the President to say little until Lewinsky gives her version of events in a new legal deposition, expected this week. Her lawyer, William Ginsburg, offered Starr, who is probing a series of allegations concerning Clinton, a deal in which she would gain immunity from prosecution in exchange for changing her sworn testimony and confirming that she had an affair with Clinton. She would not, however, say Clinton or Jordan asked her to lie. Starr rejected Ginsburg’s initial proposal.
Meanwhile, Clinton, too, has testified under oath that he did not have an affair with Lewinsky. He did so as part of the same case in which Lewinsky made her sworn denial: the sexual harassment suit filed against Clinton by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones, whose allegations have already damaged the President’s image. If Lewinsky now testifies that such a relationship did take place, the President could face a felony charge of peijury. And if the claim sticks that he advised her to lie, it could be considered obstruction of justice. That is why impeachment—the process of charging a president with a high crime—is considered a possibility.
The allegations that caused the storm are straightforward, but difficult to verify. Lewinsky, the daughter of a wealthy Beverly Hills, Calif., couple who divorced acrimoniously when she was 14, went to work in the White House as an unpaid intern in 1995. She was given a job transcribing notes in a small office near the President. Shortly before the 1996 presidential campaign, she moved to a full-time job in the public affairs section of the Pentagon. There, she sought out a White House acquaintance who had already moved there—Linda Tripp— and the two became friends. In telephone conversations with Tripp over the next two years, Lewinsky repeatedly asserted—sometimes giving graphic details—that she was having an affair with Clinton within the confines of the White House. Unbeknownst to Lewinsky, Tripp—who first began work in the White House when the Republicans were in power— taped more than 20 hours of those conversations. She then gave them to Starr.
At that point, the issue was still supposed to be secret. But details of the case, and Starr’s investigation, became known to Michael Isikoff, a reporter for Newsweek magazine. He obtained copies of some of the taped conversations. The magazine initially planned to publish his explosive story in its edition of last week. At the last moment, the story was pulled by the magazine’s editors, partly, they said, due to an appeal from Starr and partly because the editors questioned Lewinsky’s credibility. By then, rumors of the story’s revelations were rife within Washington—and shortly after that, they were reproduced in The Drudge Report, a gossip sheet published on the Internet by Californiabased writer Matt Drudge. The news moved into the mainstream media within hours—and Newsweek then released details of its story on the Internet.
Even in cynical Washington, the newest Clinton scandal caused a sensation. The media left no cliché unturned, running headlines that referred to “sex, lies and audiotape” and the inevitable “Zippergate.” Within Clinton’s inner cirTripp: a ‘friend’ who made cle, his most important supporter—his
wife Hillary—defended him unequivocally in public. She was emerging as the leader of the damage-control efforts. Many of his cabinet members also stood behind him. But a spokesman for Vice-President Al Gore initially said Gore would not comment—although he is usually one of Clinton’s most enthusiastic cheerleaders. The Vice-President later asserted that “the President said the charges are untrue and I believe him.” Conversely, key Republicans were surprisingly restrained, with House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich, among others, urging caution until full details were known.
Clinton’s denials were far from unequivocal. In initial interviews, he
repeatedly used the present tense to say “there is not a sexual relationship” with Lewinsky—which stopped short of saying there had not been one in the past. Clinton also said that there had not been an “improper” relationship. But Lewinsky is reported to have said to Tripp that Clinton favored oral sex—and did not consider that such an act constituted adultery. Clinton has a history of making minuscule distinctions in his public statements—such as his infamous assertion that he “didn’t inhale” when he M was seen smoking marijuana during his 2 student days in England. And at least I one person—Gennifer Flowers, who, in 1 1992, became the first woman to claim £ publicly that Clinton had an affair with 1 her—insists there is reason to believe « that Clinton may have asked Lewinsky x to lie about their relationship. Flowers § told CNN: “He certainly encouraged me ? to participate in a coverup.”
§ Outside official Washington, many 20 hours of secret tapes Americans seemed less concerned by
what Clinton may have done sexually than by the possibility that he lied about it. That opinion was expressed repeatedly on radio phone-in shows and in surveys. In fact, those sentiments mirror the legal situation: while adultery is not a felony, the act of convincing someone to lie under oath is a criminal offence. The U.S. Constitution says the President “shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Although that language is open to interpretation, most observers agree that if Clinton was formally charged with perjury, he would face intense pressure to resign or be impeached—before the case went to trial.
Hillary Clinton defended her husband unequivocally
Some observers say that Americans’ blasé feelings about adultery will melt quickly if the allegations are proven. “The American people don’t care what he did way back in the days when he was governor of Arkansas,” said Michael Bryce, a Virginia-based pollster who does consulting work for the National Democratic Committee. But, added Bryce, if Clinton committed indiscretions within the White House— and with someone not much older than his own 17-year-old daughter, Chelsea—voters will lose confidence in his judgment. In that event, said Bryce, “The question would have to be asked: do we want this man as leader of the country?”
In the eyes of some Americans, the answer has always been a resounding No. More than perhaps any other American president in recent history, Clinton, despite high approval ratings, evokes extraordinary hostility from a devout segment of right-wingers. And some have been at the heart of the series of attempts to link Clinton with graft and sexual escapades in his days as governor of Arkansas. The sexual misconduct suit of Paula Jones, who says that Clinton exposed himself and asked her for oral sex in a hotel room while he
was governor of Arkansas, has been paid for and organized since last fall by the right-wing Rutherford Institute of Charlottesville, Va. Prior to that, Jones’s previous lawyers thought they had worked out a settlement—but Jones, after meeting with lawyers provided by the institute, held out for harder terms that include a public apology by Clinton.
There are also questions concerning the role and intent of Linda Tripp, the woman who taped Lewinsky’s claims of her liaisons with Clinton. Among them: what kind of friend tapes intimate and personal conversations, and allows investigators to outfit her with a body wire to assemble more such tapes? The 48-year-old Tripp, who holds a high-level government security clearance, appears to have had a variety of motives. She has said she resented being called a liar by Clinton’s attorney, Robert Bennett. That occurred after she suggested last August that she had seen another woman, White House staffer Kathleen Willey, leaving Clinton’s office with smeared lipstick and looking “dishevelled . . . happy and joyful.” But Tripp also considered writing a tell-all book on the White House, and gave copies of the tapes to Lucianne Goldberg, a friend and New York City book agent who once was paid $1,000 a week by a representative of Richard Nixon to spy on his Democratic rivals. Bennett suggests that Tripp is part of a planned “sting” by political enemies, and some more neutral observers suspect the same. Says law professor Stephen Wayne of Georgetown University: “It strikes me as a setup.”
Now, Clinton must hope that Lewinsky sticks to her denial of a relationship with him. Yet even if she does, investigators for Starr will examine a variety of troubling questions about the President’s relations with the now 24year-old woman. Some White House officials have sug„ gested that she was shuffled to the Pentagon because of £ concerns over the nature of her relationship with the £ President. She often behaved in a flirtatious manner to! wards Clinton: other interns said she repeatedly boasted I of their relationship, and of the gifts she said Clinton gave I her. Lewinsky is reported to have visited the White § House several times since leaving work there for what were described in White House logs as meetings with Betty Currie, Clinton’s personal secretary. Investigators will ask Currie whether those visits were made to see her, or someone else. Last week, Jordan, Clinton’s close adviser, acknowledged that he helped arrange for Lewinsky to find a new job with Revlon Inc. in New York (an offer which was revoked as soon as the scandal broke). He also helped her find an attorney after she received a subpoena from Jones’s lawyers. That begs the question of why Jordan, one of the busiest and most influential power-brokers in Washington, would do such favors for someone who seems relatively inconsequential to him.
And investigators say Lewinsky played Tripp a tape of a personal phone call from Clinton—which Tripp, in turn, also recorded. According to these sources, Lewinsky also said Clinton gave her gifts that included a navy blue dress, a pin and a book of Walt Whitman poetry. Investigators last week used subpoenas to seize a variety of such items from Lewinsky’s Washington apartment. They include mementoes from Cape Cod—where Clinton vacations with his wife and daughter every summer—and the dress. ABC News reported that the dress will be tested for semen stains because Lewinsky allegedly told a friend she wore it during a sexual encounter with Clinton. As well, investigators ascertained that on at least seven different occasions, Lewinsky sent packages via courier from her home to the White House, addressed to Clinton’s secretary, Currie.
Lewinsky remained in seclusion last week. In her absence, the conflicting sides painted different images of her character—ranging from a shy, naive girl to a bubbly, cheery flirt who favored tight blouses. Former classmates at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., described her alternately as plump, pretty or cheerful, but decidedly average in her interests and intelligence.
Ultimately, though, the character and actions of the American President are at issue, not those of Lewinsky. The real problem for Clinton is that Lewinsky is just the latest in a series of women with whom he has been linked. They include Jones, Flowers, White House employee Willey, and former Clinton highschool classmate Dolly Kyle Browning, who has given a deposition in Jones’s case saying she had a three-decade-long relationship with Clinton. Even Lewinsky reportedly complained on the tapes that Clinton cheated on her with four other women during their relationship.
Still, none of those allegations have yet been proven. And even as they monitor every move by Clinton, some members of the media argue that they should do the same monitoring of themselves. One result of the growth of the Internet is that information now travels the world almost instantly—whether or not it is analyzed and verified. That is the case with The Drudge Report, whose author concedes that he cannot verify many of the tips he receives. Yet once Drudge released some details about Lewinsky, the mainstream U.S. media swallowed their concerns and immediately followed suit.
On the entertainment side of the media, Clinton faced a different kind of reaction—ridicule. On the Comedy Central network, host Craig Kilborn dubbed Clinton “President Busy-Pants” while popular NBC late-night host Jay Leno labelled him “the Unabanger.” Added Leno: “Only President Clinton could divert attention from a sex scandal with another sex scandal.”
Around the Oval Office, of course, no one was laughing. Aides insisted the President was spending his time finishing up his state of the union address, which he is scheduled to deliver on Jan. 27. The speech was supposed to offer a crucial opportunity for Clinton to lay the groundwork for his final three years in office—a time in which he seeks to leave his imprint on history. But there are two problems. One is that Clinton’s place in history may already be secure for reasons he does not want. The other is that one key element of his speech may no longer seem appropriate. The planned theme: the need for citizens to trust in their government.