Sex, truth and consequences
Clinton will tell his version to the grand jury
Washington, Scene One: The American President, symbol of his nation in times of both joy and grief, leads a solemn service under the soaring Capitol Rotunda for two guards shot to death by a deranged gunman. He deftly captures the poignancy of the moment—the loss of the families, the shock of sudden violence at the centre of democracy. Even his opponents readily acknowledge that at such times, Bill Clinton gets it just right.
Washington, Scene Two: At almost the same moment, 20 blocks to the west, lawyers representing Monica Lewinsky step into the heavy heat of late July to face a phalanx of reporters and cameramen. Lewinsky, they announce, will tell her story to a grand jury in return for complete immunity from prosecution for herself and her mother, Marcia Lewis. Almost immediately, people claiming knowledge of Lewinsky’s version of events spread the word: despite her previous denials, she will swear under oath that while she was a young intern at the White House, she and Clinton did have a sexual relationship.
Americans have long known that there are two Bill Clintons—the eloquent leader with perfect political pitch, and the flawed man who all too often loses his battles with temptation. When they first elected him President in 1992, they bought the package. But there are moments when the tension between the two Clintons seems all too glaring—and last week was one of them. After several months during which the Lewinsky saga had turned into a sideshow for political junkies, it was back at centre stage. Her deal with independent counsel Kenneth Starr, followed a day later by Clinton’s agreement to give his version of events to prosecutors, broke the logjam. The only two people who surely know the full story are finally set to testify before Starr’s grand jury—Lewinsky as
What Clinton said:
President Bill Clinton testified under oath in January when lawyers pursuing Paula Jones’s sexual harassment case were allowed to question him. Seeking to establish a pattern of behavior; they asked the President about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Excerpts:
Q: / think I used the term “sexual affair. ” And so the record is completely clear, have you ever had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, as that term is defined in Deposition Exhibit 1, as modified by the court [a document defining sexual relations as contact by someone with another person’s groin, buttocks, breast or inner thigh]? Clinton: I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. I’ve never had an affair with her.
The only two people who surely know the full story are set to testify
early as this week, Clinton by videotape on Aug. 17. Jonathan Turley, a professor of law at George Washington University in Washington, put it succinctly: “This could not be a more precarious time for the President.”
Just how precarious depends on several things: exactly what Lewinsky tells Starr; how Clinton responds; and how American voters react to whatever new revelations emerge from the final round of testimony—especially if it becomes clear that the president has been lying all along. In what has become standard operating procedure for the six-month investigation, the story that Lewinsky promised to tell in return for near-complete immunity from prosecution was immediately leaked to key news outlets. She will, sources claiming knowledge of her story said, testify that she and Clinton had sex and that they discussed ways of covering up the 18-month affair, which allegedly began when she was just 21. She will apparently not tell Starr’s jury that Clinton directly asked her to lie. Instead, she is prepared to say that they talked about hypothetical ways that she might keep their liaison secret—perhaps by claiming that her three dozen visits to the White House after she left her job there were to visit the President’s secretary,
Betty Currie, rather than Clinton himself.
Potentially, that could provide the basis for charges of perjury or even obstruction of justice against the President. In a sworn statement he gave in January as part of Paula Jones’s failed sexual harassment lawsuit against him, Clinton said flatly: “I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. I’ve never had an affair with her.” But it could get even worse—and more embarrassing—for him. As she drove to her lawyers’ office last Monday to put the final touches on the deal with Starr, Lewinsky was carrying a bag on her lap. In it, sources familiar with her account said late last week, was a navy-blue cocktail dress stained with what commentators delicately referred to as “physical evidence” of sexual contact between the intern and the President.
In plainer language, it was the so-called semen-stained dress—one of the seamier details to emerge in the original flurry of reporting when the scandal broke open in late January. When investigators were unable to find it in Lewinsky’s apartment, the White House dismissed it as the invention of a media caught up in scandal frenzy. But the story that emerged last week was that there is such a dress, and that the investigators didn’t find it because Lewinsky had sent it to her mother. Last week she surrendered it to Starr’s investigators as part of her deal with them. By the end of the week, FBI investigators were conducting DNA tests on it. If it contains genetic material, Starr could ask Clinton for a blood, saliva or hair sample and try to match them. At the same time, Lewinsky also turned over tapes of friendly
phone messages to her from the President, in which he says such things as: “Hey, it’s me. Sorry I missed you.” Hardly incriminating— but evidence of an oddly close relationship between a young intern and the man she used to refer to as the Big He.
In return, Lewinsky received “transactional immunity” for herself and her mother—a blanket guarantee that neither will be prosecuted as a result of anything they tell the grand jury, so long as they tell the truth. For Clinton, the only glimmer of good news was Lewinsky’s reported statement that no one connected with the White House wrote the so-called talking points document that she gave to her onetime friend Linda Tripp, laying out ways to cover up her relationship with the President. Otherwise, Lewinsky’s immunity deal and the evidence she apparently turned over to Starr’s office presented Clinton with a whole new set of problems. The presence of physical evidence to corroborate Lewinsky’s story would make it more than a battle of credibility between an incumbent President and a young woman who admitted on tape to Tripp that “I have lied my entire life.” And the deal turns Lewinsky into the willing tool of a prosecutor who has devoted a good chunk of the decade to delving into alleged wrongdoing by Clinton, his wife Hillary, and an array of their friends and associates.
Over and over last week, the Democrats refrain was that Starr has spent “four years and $40 million” investigating scandals starting with the Whitewater land deal and ending with the alleged sex-and-lies tryst with Lewinsky. So far, he has pinned nothing on the President or Hillary Clinton, and their supporters say that proves Starr’s inquiry has become an obsessive vendetta. “I don’t think the public is interested in a $40-million investigation about ^ consensual sex between adults,” said I Massachusetts Democratic Congressman S Martin Meehan in a typical comment.
* So far, that appears to be about right. One poll taken last week showed Clinton’s public support staying high—despite the new flurry of interest in the Lewinsky case. The survey by CNN and USA Today put the President’s job-approval rating at 65 per cent, up four points from early July. (By contrast, Starr’s approval ratings have sunk below 20 per cent.) At the same time, two-thirds of those questioned last week thought that Clinton did have sex with Lewinsky, and 56 per cent thought he lied about the affair under oath. The dilemma for Clinton’s opponents is that, right from the start, Americans riding the crest of a surging economy have consistently told pollsters they don’t much care about the President’s private conduct, despite heated and repeated predictions from commentators that the scandal might destroy his presidency.
So the political impact of last week’s dramatic developments may still be muted. During a recent discussion on Capitol Hill among six prominent political consultants—three Democrats and three Republicans— none mentioned Starr’s investigation while analyzing factors shaping November’s mid-term Congressional elections. Voters, they agreed, simply do not want to hear about it, and the prospect of testimony by the key players did not change that judgment. “The fact of the matter,” said Mark Mellman, a leading Democratic consultant in Washington, “is that most people in this country, rightly or wrongly, believe that Bill Clinton had sex with Monica Lewinsky, and they still think he’s doing a good job as President and want him to continue.” When Republicans bring
Republicans have stumbled badly in dealing with the scandal
up the issue, Mellman said in an interview,
“what people hear is that they’re more concerned about scoring partisan political points than about solving real problems— and that’s a bad message to send.”
As a result, Republicans have stumbled badly in dealing with the scandal. In the early days they said almost nothing on the principle that when your enemy is busy destroying himself, get out of the way and let him finish the job. Then, when the public failed to react in horror to the revelations, House Speaker Newt Gingrich began to lash out at the President for alleged moral failings—only to abruptly fall silent again when that tactic failed. Last week, senior Republicans were cautious, sending a clear message that they were not prepared to take action against a President—such as the dramatic step of impeachment—if all Starr can prove is an affair. “It’s got to be more than sexual peccadilloes in the White House,” said Orrin Hatch of Utah, chairman of the Senate’s judiciary committee.
But even if the scandal has not turned voters against Clinton, it has hurt Democrats in more subtle ways. For one, party activists fear it may discourage Democratic voters from turning out at the polls in November. For another, it has distracted Clinton. “It takes him off his game,” says Doc Sweitzer, a Democratic consultant in Philadelphia who is helping to run campaigns all over the country. “He’s our strongest communicator, and instead of being out there every day talking about health care and the issues we want to talk about, he’s doing something else. Instead of his staff being out there pushing the issues, they’re putting out fires. It takes our strongest player off the field.”
In large part, that was a situation of Clinton’s own making. Six days after the scandal broke on Jan. 21, he firmly denied having “sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky,” or asking anyone to lie— “not a single time, never.” And in a phrase that came back to haunt him, he said he would give his version of events—“more rather than less, sooner rather than later.” Then, on his lawyers’ strong advice, he clammed up for six months despite a barrage of questions from the media and repeated requests by Starr for information. The White House fought furiously to keep witnesses from testifying before the grand jury, claiming legal privileges for White House staff lawyers, Secret Service agents and others. Starr battled back in the courts, winning key rulings that compelled Clinton’s personal Secret Service guards and White House lawyers to give evidence. Even the man regarded as the President’s closest associate in the White House, his old Arkansas friend Bruce Lindsey, was ordered last week by a court to appear before the grand jury.
At the same time, pressure mounted on the President to finally tell his story to Starr. In mid-July, the prosecutor served him with a subpoena
requiring him to testify. Clinton could have fought that in the courts, but Democrats began suggesting publicly that the time had come for him to give his version of events. The day after Lewinsky’s lawyers announced her deal, Clinton’s personal attorney, David Kendall, said the President would “voluntarily” submit to questioning from prosecutors. In fact, there was little voluntary about it, since most legal experts believe the President would have lost a court fight against Starr’s subpoena. But he did win concessions that will preserve some dignity for him. Instead of going to the grand jury room at a federal courthouse in central Washington, Clinton will be questioned at the White House by prosecutors and be allowed to have his lawyers in the room with him (witnesses normally must testify alone). His testimony will be videotaped on Aug. 17—forcing him to delay by two days his planned vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off Massachusetts.
By the end of August, then, Starr will have all the evidence he can expect to get on the Lewinsky affair. Then he must make sense of his four years of investigation by reporting his findings to the House of Representatives, and possibly laying charges as well. Pressure is mounting on him from both parties to do that quickly—to “wrap this sucker up,” as Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont put it. Close observers of the case found more clues last week of what he might do. Linda Tripp, Lewinsky’s erstwhile friend who set off the scandal by secretly taping their long telephone conversations about Clinton and then taking the evidence to Starr, spoke out for the first time. After months of being publicly scorned as a traitor to a friend and ridiculed for her physical appearance, Tripp ended eight days of testimony before the grand jury with an emotional defence of herself as an average American who had taken “the path of truth.”
Tripp also said something that strongly suggested her lengthy testimony ranged more widely than the Lewinsky saga. She worked as a secretary in the Clinton White House in 1993 and 1994, and said that as a result, “I became aware ... of actions by high government officials that may have been against the law.” She did not elaborate. But at the same time, conservative commentators with access to the thinking in Starr’s office, such as William Satire of The New York Times and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, have begun to suggest that Starr’s final report may cite the Lewinsky affair as just one example of a bigger pattern of abuse of power by Clinton and his associates. “What if the seemingly obsessive pursuit of false denial in the Lewinsky . . . matter turns out to illuminate a much broader landscape of witness-tampering and suppression of evidence?” Safire wrote last week. “Then we would be talking about a serious abuse of executive power.”
If that thinking is correct, then Clinton could face a weighty report tying earlier scandals such as Whitewater to how he has handled his relationship with Lewinsky. Starr, suggested Peri Arnold, a presidential historian at Notre Dame University, “seems to be trying to build a big theory of the case, a web of inference that goes all the way back to the earliest Clinton scandals.” That report may not be far off. With the remaining pieces of the puzzle falling into place, Starr could well take his conclusions to Capitol Hill by October—just in time for them to become an issue in November’s elections. □