• U.S.

Over To You, Bill Clinton

12 minute read
Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

The night before her day in court, Monica Lewinsky promised her lawyers she would go to sleep early, but instead she lay awake for hours. She worried about what it would mean to put her private life irrevocably into the public record: she had no illusion that anything would stay secret for long. And she wondered how she would keep her composure through something so painful. She had watched President Clinton under pressure–he always made it look easy–putting everything in neat compartments in a way she never could. But she has learned a lot these past six months, and the only way she could imagine bringing herself to testify against Clinton without falling apart was by trying to be like him. “She had to put her emotions in a box,” an associate said later, “because this was a really difficult thing for her.”

Monica had about 12 hours to go: at that very moment, Clinton still had 12 days before his appointment with Kenneth Starr, but his thoughts that night at the White House were of rebellion–against Starr, against the advice of his own lawyer, David Kendall, against the expectations building on all sides. He had agreed to testify because he felt he had no choice in the face of a subpoena and the warnings from Democrats that he had better not fight it. But no decisions are forever these days, and so on the eve of Monica’s testimony, one of Clinton’s closest advisers slipped into the White House late that night, so as not to upset Kendall, and spent an hour alone with the President. The adviser made the case for a reversal: the independent counsel had overstepped his bounds; no President has ever been forced to appear before a grand jury; it could be a perjury trap. The move would be hard to weather politically, the adviser admitted; the Democrats on Capitol Hill might quaver and bolt, and the public reaction could be very ugly. But the alternative could be even worse.

In the end Clinton chose to stick with his plan to testify next Monday. Apart from the political costs of refusing, the courts have long ruled that you can sue a sitting President, you can subpoena his tapes, and you can get his papers. If Clinton challenged the call to testify, Kendall had warned, he would lose, and perhaps quickly. “It doesn’t make sense for the presidency, for Bill Clinton, for the next 2 1/2 years, for him to be silent,” says an adviser.

Ken Starr has spent seven months stalking his quarry; last week he gently laid in the bait. Lewinsky’s testimony for six hours on Thursday did not leave much room for escape, for quibbles over what constitutes a sexual relationship or charges that she had an overly rich fantasy life. She told the 23 grand jurors that during a period of more than 18 months, she was alone with the President many times, that they did indeed have a sexual relationship and talked about how to conceal it. She told them about the dark-blue dress from the Gap. And while reports of her testimony did not surprise many in the White House, even they don’t know how tightly Starr has triangulated the days and nights of Monica Lewinsky.

Starr has her testimony, the tapes and something else, the kind of gift only a faithful government secretary like Linda Tripp could give: a stenographer’s notebook filled with 80 to 100 pages of tight shorthand that chronicles the times, dates, places and circumstances of Lewinsky’s alleged liaison with the President, a sort of Guide Bleu to the whole story. According to sources outside Starr’s office, at this time a year ago, when Lewinsky was distraught over Clinton’s decision to break things off, she talked to her friend Tripp for hours about what had happened and why, from the very start of the relationship, and Tripp patiently wrote it all down in her notebook.

Tripp gave that book to Starr during one of their first encounters back in January, these sources tell TIME, and thus handed him a skeleton key that could help in tracking down the White House visitation records and phone logs, as well as grilling the Secret Service agents, in an effort to reconstruct the relationship from beginning to end. The notebook includes a chronicle of events that took place during months not covered by Tripp’s audiotapes. When Starr finally got his chance to question Lewinsky, the book may have helped him test her credibility and jog her memory once she began cooperating. Last week, as people waited to learn the results of the dress tests, Clinton’s antagonists were reminding anyone who would listen that Starr was building his case in triplicate. “Even if the dress turns out to be nothing,” says a private lawyer involved in the case, “there is so much other stuff–the messages, the gifts, the logs, the Secret Service stuff. They were alone an awful lot.”

If anything, Clinton’s position was solidifying as the date with Starr drew nearer. The spectacle of Lewinsky running the gantlet of cameras into the federal courthouse, the rumors that the DNA tests on the dress would prove his undoing, the growing consensus that he was walking into a perjury trap, led outsiders to assert that he would soon have no choice but to confess all–and insiders to suspect essentially the opposite: that he would admit not a single thing, deny any romance, dismiss Lewinsky as a fantasizing stalker and even consider refusing to turn over a blood sample that could match his DNA to the stain on the dress. Fight it out, all the way, without looking back.

That strategy was totally plausible to those who know Bill Clinton best and fear Hillary Clinton most. By last week, the First Lady had canceled her plans to head up to Martha’s Vineyard two weeks before the President, and though she was officially “on vacation,” nobody was fooled about why she was still in town. If Clinton’s first instinct is to find a compromise, hers is to fight. She has the advantage that her conversations with her husband are still legally protected, unlike just about everyone else’s. One reason why all the people who usually guide Clinton out of tough spots are mute this time is fear that Starr can haul them before a grand jury to repeat their advice; the other reason is more tender. No one wants to suggest in front of his wife that the President may have been less than faithful and plot a strategy accordingly.

And so the President stays glued to his denials. That leaves the White House staff divided into three camps, united only by their lack of certainty about what Clinton did and what he intends to say about what he did. There are the rough-and-ready, “he’s innocent” loyalists, who stick to their guns because they are too honorable to desert the boss, or they believe nothing happened because “he told me so.” Among them are some of Clinton’s newest aides, whose need to believe him borders on the spiritual. There is the middle group of longer-standing advisers who fear it is all true but push on, hoping otherwise, praying that this scandal will, like so many others before, prove to be nonfatal. And then there are the kiln-fired realists, who are, by habit if not by faith, the most optimistic. As one of them put it, “He deserves everything he is getting right now. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t trying to help.”

In public, that means the meticulous maintenance of the Potemkin presidency, in which every appearance suggests that nothing is wrong. It was a week of crusades for gun control and Native American economic development, unity meetings with Democrats on the Hill, relentless Rose Garden ceremonies that at some point were painful to watch, as when Clinton cued the Marine Band to drown out reporters’ questions. Deputy spokesman Barry Toiv, last week’s sacrificial lamb, could even joke about it with the rumbling White House press corps. “Hey, I am sorry,” he said on arriving almost an hour late for the Wednesday briefing. “It is not easy getting up here and saying nothing. It takes a lot of preparation.”

Behind the scenes, aides worked hard to limit the President’s exposure. Because of reports that hackers have broken into closed-circuit TV feeds, some members of Clinton’s inner circle are pressing Kendall to ask Starr to have the grand jury come to the White House. They are trying to prevent the testimony from being videotaped because they are certain that the tape would leak. For now, the White House boasts that grand jurors will not be able to ask questions of Clinton. There is nothing, however, to prevent prosecutors at the courthouse from sending over questions to their colleagues sitting with the President.

Clinton’s inner circle takes some comfort in the fact that in contrast to typical grand-jury testimony, the President’s lawyer will remain at his side rather than having to wait outside. “Kendall’s job will be to sit there with a briefcase full of socks ready to stuff them into his mouth,” jokes a Washington defense lawyer. Kendall might also remind the questioners that they are talking to the President of the U.S.–a protocol Clinton cannot enforce himself. But Kendall can do only so much. If he pulls on the President’s sleeve one time too many, the interruption may run afoul of whatever deal he and Starr worked out and the independent counsel may appeal to the judge to silence Kendall or remove him from the room.

There have been loud hints all along that Kendall’s strategy may come down to an argument over the definition of sex, which once again opens the gap between what is legally possible and what is politically conceivable. If Starr is trying to prove Clinton lied in his deposition to Paula Jones’ lawyers when he said he had never had sexual relations with Lewinsky, then whether or not he committed perjury could depend on how the term “sexual relations” is defined. Perjury requires intent: innocent mistakes are not enough. And because of the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, ambiguities are resolved in favor of the defendant.

So the lawyers for Paula Jones tried to avoid any possible ambiguity by drafting a galactically broad definition of sex that would include touching of any erotic kind, fondling, oral sex or actual intercourse. In fact, the definition was so broad that when presented with it in January, Clinton’s side challenged the definition by noting that a friendly hug on a rope line would just about meet the standard for sexual relations. At the time, Judge Susan Webber Wright agreed and narrowed the definition in such a way that some legal advisers saw a perjury escape hatch here, since the narrow definition would include intercourse but not necessarily oral sex.

Any loopholes in terminology may provide some momentary refuge, but not for long. Even the President’s legal team understands that politically, Clinton could never claim innocence based on a legal technicality. As far as the public and Congress are concerned, Clinton in his deposition testified that he had never had any kind of sexual contact with Monica Lewinsky. And perhaps more important, the same holds true for the President’s public declaration that “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”

In private, the efforts to help the President’s cause took an uglier turn. White House operatives have never so much as hinted publicly at any hostility toward Lewinsky; they left it to poison-pen columnists and late-night comics to draw Lewinsky as a cartoon, flighty, flaky–and their polls showed how well that worked. The fact that most Americans think she is telling the truth about an affair has not spared her their scorn; the polls show an almost complete lack of respect or sympathy for her, to the point that a U.S. Congressman could dismiss her completely. “The President is going to say I didn’t do it,” says one Democratic lawmaker. “And it’s going to go down to, Whom do you trust, the President or some floozy who wants to get herself out of trouble?”

Once Lewinsky agreed two weeks ago to cooperate with Starr, she unleashed a more ruthless set of enemies. It may only be a matter of time before Clinton loyalists relaunch their winter counterattack on Lewinsky’s credibility. But more insidious were leaks to supermarket tabloids that called into question not just Lewinsky’s honesty but her sanity as well. The National Enquirer cited White House insiders who portray Lewinsky as “a virtual psychopath” who stalked the President and spun his innocent attentions to her into a full-blown sexual fantasy.

Clinton’s team savored a rare legal victory over Starr when it was revealed last week that Starr and his aides may have violated federal rules by leaking grand jury testimony and could possibly be fined or held in contempt. It has always been a possible route for Clinton to seize on the leak investigation as another reason not to cooperate. But that is a move Clinton can save for later. For now, he is still playing Starr’s game, which means an unprecedented rendezvous with the grand jury next week.

–Reported by Jay Branegan, Margaret Carlson, J.F.O. McAllister and Michael Weisskopf/Washington

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