That's Where He Lost Me
By Dee Dee Myers
(TIME, August 31) -- Sitting on the set of Larry King Live on Monday night, I waited nervously for the President to address the nation. I had suspected for months and believed for weeks that Bill Clinton had had a sexual relationship with "that woman," Monica Lewinsky, and now, fresh from the grand jury, he was prepared to admit it to the American people. But would he take responsibility for it, own up both to his behavior and to the price his family, his supporters and the country had paid during nearly seven months of evasion?
I desperately wanted him to; night after night, my talking head implored him to. But I knew him too well.
At 10:02 p.m., a drawn and clench-jawed President appeared on the CNN monitor. "Good evening," he said. And it was mostly downhill from there.
There were some high points. In the first few minutes, the words were right, the tone confessional. He knew what he had to say, and he was choking out an apology of sorts, though he never used the word. And I was with him. I could only imagine how difficult it was for him. Lord knows, it was painful just to watch. I was almost willing to swallow his claim that his answers in the Jones deposition were "legally accurate." I had hoped he wouldn't try to slice his own words into a meaningless pile of razor-thin legalisms, but I told myself his lawyers had probably demanded it. So I set it aside.
When he admitted that he had misled people, even his wife, his voice caught. For the first time, I felt his pain rather than his anger, and I fought the lump in my throat. I wanted more.
But it didn't come. No sooner did he accept responsibility than he shifted it, first to the "politically inspired" Paula Jones lawsuit, then, predictably, to Ken Starr.
When the speech ended, I hoped that Larry King would call on someone else first. He did. I sat there and tried to collect my thoughts, but I couldn't hide my disappointment.
Since January, I've been asked often if I was surprised by allegations that the President had an affair with a 21-year-old intern. I wasn't. After all, as the Clintons are quick to point out, they've been accused of everything from adultery to drug running to murder. What surprised me in this case was this: it was true. I never believed that Bill Clinton would actually risk his presidency--a job he had studied, dreamed about and prepared for since he was a kid--for something so frivolous, so reckless, so small.
I first went to work for Bill Clinton in the fall of 1991. I had been a wary recruit. President Bush was riding high in the wake of the Gulf War; spending a year on the road in pursuit of a lost cause seemed like a waste. But I agreed to interview for the press secretary's job.
That meeting changed my life. Never had I met a candidate who knew with such certainty why he wanted to run. And never had I met anyone in public life who believed so passionately in the potential of politics to do good. His passion was infectious, and within a couple of weeks I found myself on the campaign plane that would become my home for the next year.
It was one hell of a ride. And through it, we were all introduced to Bill Clinton, his extraordinary gifts and his equally extraordinary weaknesses. Often, they seemed inexorably linked. Only a candidate with Clinton's resilience and abiding faith in the virtue of his mission could have survived the double whammy of Gennifer Flowers and the draft-dodge charge during the New Hampshire primary. With energy and empathy, he explained his way out of the traps he had laid--a pattern that would become all too familiar in the coming years. I learned to be careful with Clinton's words, for he chose them carefully. Too often, he meant exactly what he said--and no more. When he said the Gennifer Flowers story wasn't true, for example, he meant it. But he didn't mean that parts of it might not be true.
During the campaign and the two years I served as the White House press secretary, I sometimes felt caught in the web of those words. I never could explain what happened to the middle-class tax cut, for example, or whether if the health-care plan covered 95% of Americans, it would meet the threshold of universal care. Still, I was never asked to lie. So I tried hard, sometimes too hard, to defend a President who never lost his ability to dazzle me.
The President's relationship with Monica Lewinsky was so reckless as to seem pathological. He knew the consequences of getting caught, but he went ahead. For 18 months. In the West Wing of the White House.
When he was caught, he put all his chips on the same kind of artfully worded, misleading denials that had snatched him from the brink of disaster before. And for seven months he put his family, his friends, his staff and his supporters through hell.
Yes, I think Ken Starr has done a lousy job, and I think he was wrong to pursue an investigation so far afield from his original mandate. But that's another story.
For the moment, Bill Clinton is the issue. Monday night he had the chance to rise above the anger and the evasiveness that have done so much damage to his presidency. He didn't. And I worry that it's too late.
It would be easier if I didn't think he was the most talented person I had ever met. It would be easier if I didn't like him, and cherish memories of political achievements and personal moments. It would be easier if I didn't believe in his agenda or think he was a potentially great President. But I do.
I just wish he had done right by all the people who so willingly gave him their votes, their hopes, their labor and their love.
Dee Dee Myers, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair magazine, was White House press secretary from 1993 to '94