"THIS IS A BATTLE." -Hillary Clinton
In a breathtaking reversal of fortunes, Clinton's popularity soars while Starr gets stuck in the mud
By Nancy Gibbs
(TIME, February 9) -- Was Monica reading the poems the President gave her, when she wasn't trapped playing strip poker with the prosecutor last week? Holed up in her Watergate apartment, could she bear to watch herself all day, all the time on CNN, as old lovers denounced her, pundits dissected her and the President's defenders dismissed her? Or did she fall back on old comforts,watch Days of Our Lives? Could she tell the difference? Could we?
If the first episode of the Story of Monica and Bill required the country to get used to the very idea that the President of the United States might have fooled around with an intern and then tried to hush her up, the second installment dared us to trust him. The first week was an All-Starr game, in which a crusading prosecutor, after 3 1/2 frustrating years of sniffing through sour Arkansas land deals, suddenly swooped down on the White House, subpoenas in hand, FBI agents in tow, asserting his right to ask just about anyone just about anything that had to do with the President's most intimate acts. Even people disgusted by what the President might have done were disturbed by what it might take to catch him.
And so last week, in a reversal so breathtaking it briefly knocked the wind out of the hoarse commentators who had left the President for dead, Clinton spun around and used the assault to consolidate his power. The threat of the prosecutor was no match for the power of the presidency, and Clinton used it to full advantage. He finally managed a denial as airtight as it could be without getting anatomical. The White House shock troops, led by Hillary, gave ambivalent voters someone else to blame, a "vast right-wing conspiracy" that was trying to destroy the President. And then, best of all, he changed the subject.
Clinton's gritty State of the Union speech reminded voters how well things are going, how much he promised to do for them if they would just give him one more chance. He invited his exhausted audience to take a holiday from Lewinsky and spend a refreshing hour and 12 minutes feeling like a country again. For once the talk on the screen was not of oral sex, but of our lives and fortunes and sacred happiness. He had become all human nature, the best and the worst, standing there naked in a sharp, dark suit, behind the TelePrompTer. That which does not kill him only makes him stronger, and his poll numbers went through the roof.
Exactly a week after the sex scandal broke, Clinton achieved the highest approval ratings of his five-year presidency. That may have been a miracle, but it was no accident: Americans are less puritanical and more forgiving than the cartoon version suggests, and this President is never better than in his worst moments. Starr meanwhile was left trying to build a case around a single witness who was neither entirely cooperative nor totally credible, whose own lawyer admitted she was given to exaggeration, who a source said tried to bribe another witness, and who described herself as a lifelong liar. The story of how Clinton came back, and how Starr seemed to be letting his quarry slip through his nets, is a drama unlike any in memory. And this was only Chapter 2.
Ken Starr had never prosecuted a case in his life before he set out to investigate the President of the United States. A cautious, righteous, minister's son, whose mother considers it something of a moral lapse that he now drinks coffee, he spent most of his life as a judge and a corporate lawyer, and still represents clients like Big Tobacco and General Motors. He was once considered the kind of centrist Republican that Democrats love, until he took over the Whitewater investigation and proceeded to squeeze witnesses and pursue leads with a zeal that troubled even people who lost no love for Bill Clinton.
Starr had not brought a new indictment in 1 1/2 years. While he was stalled, the lawyers in the Paula Jones sexual-harassment case were gaining speed, preparing a long list of witnesses who they thought might be able to testify to a pattern of aggressive sexual behavior by the President. When one of those witnesses, Linda Tripp, offered Starr her secret tape recordings of Monica Lewinsky describing an affair with the President and her intention to lie about it, it opened up a whole new world of opportunity for the prosecutor. Adultery was not an impeachable offense, but it might be a pathway to perjury and obstruction of justice by the President and his friend Vernon Jordan.
It looked for a while as though Starr finally had his silver bullet. Lewinsky and Clinton, after all, had denied the affair under oath; the Tripp tapes allowed Starr to threaten Lewinsky with prosecution for perjury unless she would help him expose the President's cover-up. But day after day, well into last week, the immunity talks went nowhere. On Monday, Lewinsky's lawyer William Ginsburg offered what he called a "complete proffer," in which he provided a detailed account of what she would say in exchange for a full grant of immunity. But by Thursday he announced that he had started preparing her criminal defense.
How did something that seemed straightforward suddenly get so complicated? As it turned out, Lewinsky's lawyers did not have much to say to Starr's attorneys. Ginsburg wasn't even doing the negotiating; Washington criminal lawyer Nathaniel Speights was. Starr's team wasn't satisfied by what Lewinsky volunteered, which a source close to the investigation said wasn't a proffer at all; Lewinsky's lawyers have simply been dribbling out bits of information. Republicans were worried that the most she would testify to was that Clinton's legal advice to Lewinsky amounted to little more than vague suggestions. If perhaps he had said something like "Please consider your options carefully," no House Judiciary Committee would regard that as an impeachable offense. And Starr was as yet unable to build a case against whoever wrote the mysterious three-page "talking points" designed to help Lewinsky's friend Tripp tiptoe through a deposition with Jones' lawyers. Starr has subpoenaed Clinton consigliere Bruce Lindsey, who, a source tells TIME, could have been in the best position to offer some legal coaching.
Without Lewinsky's testimony, Starr is left with little but circumstantial evidence, much of it messy, none of it conclusive so far. It suggests at best a pattern of attention and job- hunting assistance from Clinton and his friend Jordan that they could scarcely afford to provide all 250 White House interns. So in weeks to come, if Starr has any promising avenue left to pursue, it might be the tale of Lewinsky's job hunt: it unfolded right alongside her arrival onstage in the Paula Jones suit, and it reveals that Starr and Clinton may not be the only characters who are playing for keeps.
The story begins on Friday, Dec. 5, when Jones' lawyers quietly told Bob Bennett, Clinton's attorney, that they intended to call Lewinsky to give a deposition. Shortly thereafter, Lewinsky received a subpoena, and it was about this time that Vernon Jordan threw himself headfirst into her search for a new job.
In the days that followed, Jordan made a round of calls to various companies with which he has considerable influence. He phoned American Express and also Young & Rubicam, looking to find Lewinsky a spot in its Burson-Marsteller public relations unit. Lewinsky drafted a letter that arrived, as one company official put it, "on the heels of the Jordan call." The double team worked: Lewinsky got an interview with Burson-Marsteller on Dec. 18; on the 23rd, she interviewed at American Express. But despite Jordan's intervention, Lewinsky got no job offers. The day after Christmas, she left her job at the Pentagon--with no prospects.
On most Sunday nights the West Wing of the White House is quiet as a tomb; on the Sunday after Christmas, at the end of a long weekend, when every last soul in America was home cocooning with cocoa and football and kids, where was the President? He was meeting at the White House with a woman with a subpoena hanging over her head. According to the New York Times, Clinton advised Lewinsky to explain her many visits to the Oval Office area by saying she had come to visit his secretary, Betty Currie. Better yet, it was reported, she could get a job in New York, where it would be harder for Jones' lawyers to track her down. A source close to the White House denied the Times's account but acknowledged to TIME that Clinton and Lewinsky met that night with Currie present. The secretary's brother had just been killed in a car wreck, the source explains, and Lewinsky came to bring her a Christmas gift.
Two days later, Lewinsky was in New York City for a second interview at Burson- Marsteller. She took the standard writing test. "It was mediocre," a source told TIME. "It was sloppy when it came to details and showed little imagination." Her thank-you note was just as bad, full of bad grammar and misspellings. Burson-Marsteller never called her back.
A week later, on Jan. 7, Lewinsky was riding with Vernon Jordan to see his hand-picked lawyer to swear out an affidavit denying a sexual relationship with Clinton. Affidavits like that are sometimes used to ward off a deposition. But then, the Wall Street Journal reported last week, Lewinsky did something unusual. She did not actually file the paper with the court. Instead she squeezed Jordan: Lewinsky would later tell Tripp, who was wearing an FBI wire at the time, that she had no plans to file the affidavit until Jordan came through with a job, a source told TIME. The next day, Jordan called Revlon; within a week a job offer came through. A few days later, Lewinsky finally filed her affidavit.
By that time, however, she had come into Ken Starr's sights. The very day she filed the paper, his FBI agents swooped in on a lunch with Tripp and escorted her upstairs to talk about the future. They had her on tape saying the opposite of what she had sworn in her statement, and offering Tripp money to have a foot operation to avoid the deposition. A source told TIME that Lewinsky also offered, in exchange for Tripp's cooperation, to cover Tripp's expenses for an out-of-town journey and to make a gift of her financial interest in an Australian condo. If Lewinsky would agree to help him, Starr said, maybe wear a wire herself to help catch Vernon Jordan, he would grant her immunity.
Two weeks later, there was still no deal. And other parts of his case were shrinking fast. Federal Judge Susan Webber Wright agreed Thursday with a motion filed by Starr that the Jones investigation was getting in his way; but she ruled in a way Starr never would have asked for. Rather than put the whole Jones case on hold, she nixed the whole Lewinsky saga from the Jones lawsuit. Many legal commentators took that to mean that Starr could forget about citing either Clinton or Lewinsky for perjury in connection with the Jones case, since the subject of Lewinsky's alleged relationship with her ultimate boss will never come up at trial. If Lewinsky is not at risk of prosecution, she has little reason to cooperate with Starr at all.
The less Starr can depend on Lewinsky, the more he needs Linda Tripp, who couldn't watch the week's mud wrestling without diving in with a statement of her own. She insisted she had been an overnight guest in Lewinsky's Watergate apartment last November when the phone rang at 2 a.m. Lewinsky, she claimed, had told her the caller was Clinton. The two women talked into the night about the purported affair. She said she had also seen many of the gifts Clinton and Lewinsky allegedly exchanged.
But Tripp's own credibility came into question the next night, when Ginsburg went on ABC's 20/20 and tried to shred her account, which he said sounded like "prepublicity for a book." "Based on my investigation of the entire situation," he said, "Miss Tripp was never privy to any conversation Monica Lewinsky ever had with the President of the United States." He said that Lewinsky did occasionally talk with Clinton by phone but that the content was innocent. "It was a hi, hello, how are you, fine, and that's it. They were colleagues. I know that's hard to believe, but the President and his staff do talk."
That was a little disingenuous, since Lewinsky left the White House staff nearly two years ago for a job at the Pentagon. Ginsburg also made light of the "souvenir shop" gifts that Lewinsky received from Clinton--no dress, "unless you consider a long T shirt a dress." And as for the alleged 'DNA dress,' " he added, "I have said for two weeks now that I have investigated that very carefully because I think it's a very important potential piece of evidence. I'm not aware that any such dress exists." The next day he announced he and Lewinsky would be heading back to California, so she could spend some time with her father.
While Starr was trying to make his case, Clinton's job last week was to persuade the American people to reserve judgment, let the investigation proceed and bear with the Great Explainer's refusal to explain much of anything. So after days of watery nondenials and rumors of resignation, last Monday Clinton finally gave voters who wanted to believe in him an excuse to do so. In the Roosevelt Room of the White House Monday morning, with Hillary beside him, he stared into the camera and narrowed his eyes. "I want you to listen to me," he said. "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time, never."
It was an enormous gamble, the result of a fierce White House battle. While Clinton had for days been urged by adviser Mickey Kantor and others to toughen his denial, the Monday morning statement was finally worked out in a post-midnight strategy session with former deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes and Hollywood imagineer Harry Thomason. Ickes, the street-smart infighter who had steered Clinton's re-election campaign only to be bumped out of a second-term job, flew in from California and went straight to the White House. Ickes' prescription for the President: Look the people straight in the eye and, to the extent you and your lawyer are confident, say, "I didn't do it." Only a loud, unambiguous denial would "stanch the wound," Ickes said. Thomason, meanwhile, helped the President rehearse the stern, reproving body language, according to a source familiar with the meeting.
It was the first of several turning points, and it worked. That afternoon, when Hillary arrived in Harlem to visit an after-school program, the crowd was jeering reporters, chanting, "Leave Bill alone!" The next day was the First Lady's turn, to usher a new villain onstage. The ground had been carefully laid: Clinton's defenders had been attacking Starr as a vigilante armed "with a loaded subpoena." Clinton lawyer Bob Bennett had filed a motion, which read like a press release, to move up the date of the Paula Jones trial, scheduled to start in May. He charged that Starr "intentionally or unintentionally...has joined forces with Paula Jones. The virtually unregulated processes of civil discovery have become a vehicle for parties allied in an attempt to destroy the President."
But it was Hillary who pulled it all together, going on the Today show to attack Starr as "a politically motivated prosecutor...who has literally spent four years looking at every telephone call...we've made, every check we've ever written, scratching for dirt, intimidating witnesses." There was a familiar subtext to Hillary's comments. She knows the President better than anyone, she said, and there are no secrets between them. Which means that if she has made her peace with whatever he may have done, surely this is her business and no one else's.
That evening the White House got another assist, from a former stage-production teacher at Lewinsky's Beverly Hills high school named Andrew Bleiler, who revealed his affair with Lewinsky and cast her as a manipulative, star-struck home wrecker. A college schoolmate described her to a Swedish newspaper as a "notorious liar" and "a cheater." Penthouse, meanwhile, was offering Lewinsky $2 million to pose and tell her story; it all played nicely to what has been described as the "nuts and sluts" defense that would carefully paint Lewinsky as a less than reliable witness.
By this time, the temperature was so hot that Clinton was guaranteed the one thing he needed most: an enormous audience for his State of the Union speech that night. For days the pundits had been wondering how he would even manage it, to get up in front of both houses of Congress and the Great American Living Room and act as though nothing was wrong. Any thought of addressing the scandal was dismissed. Instead this was to be purely political, and politically pure.
A few hours before the speech, Clinton had a headache, and aides noticed the muscles of his jaw working the way they do when he is really worried. This time solace came from an unfamiliar source. In the residence, his brother Roger, no stranger to problems of addiction, handed him a silver dollar their grandfather had given their mother. Virginia Kelley carried it throughout her life as a good-luck charm. Clinton slipped it into his pocket as he walked into the House chamber.
Once there, he gave the speech of his life, less for its text than its context. It was detailed, specific and easy to understand, uncharacteristically lean, a fatherly promise to take care of business. He offered something to everyone: a balanced budget for the bond markets, better child care for working parents, a higher minimum wage for the unions, due attention to global warming for the greens, a plan to save Social Security for the boomers, and a last, potent warning for Saddam Hussein.
Then the White House did a very wise thing: it went silent. Sources dried up, officials hunkered down; the denial was out, the policy flag had been squarely planted and the White House decided simply not to respond to any but the most damaging questions. As a senior Republican official said, "The smartest thing they've done all week is shut up." In fact, Clinton and Gore left town altogether, heading to the heartland to sell the previous night's message.
The people who plan the President's trips have never been known for subtlety. When Clinton worked the rope line after his appearance in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., the University of Illinois pep band struck up the theme from Rocky. A few hours later in LaCrosse, Wis., the musical message blaring from the loudspeakers was even more heavy- handed: Taking Care of Business.
But the gods of symbolism are not to be trifled with. So between stops they arranged for the President's airplane--the very Air Force One that carried Nixon home to California for the last time--to get stuck. In the mud. As the crew transferred food, beverages, luggage and equipment from one plane to another, Clinton waved at reporters and threw both arms up in an expression of helplessness. And as the replacement plane (this time, the one that carried Kennedy's body) finally arrived in LaCrosse, Hillary's Right-Wing Conspiracy piled on. On the banks of the Mississippi near the plaza where Clinton spoke, someone had stamped the gigantic word IMPEACH into the snow.
Still, the outing achieved its purpose. Clinton drew energy from it, growing visibly stronger as the day went on. If Clinton has a strategy here, it is to change the subject. "If we make this about their lives and not mine, we'll be fine," he has told aides repeatedly in the past few days.
But even some in the White House were careful not to place too much hope in the skyscraping poll numbers. When the country faces a crisis, the people tend to rally around the President no matter what. The long-memoried in Washington recalled last week that when the Iran hostage crisis began--an event that would eventually topple the Carter presidency--his approval ratings jumped from 37% to 55% and stayed there for the next three months.
--Reported by Margaret Carlson, Michael Duffy, Viveca Novak, Karen Tumulty and Michael Weisskopf/Washington