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Pundits & Prose
Carlson Margaret Carlson was named in 1994 the first woman columnist in TIME's history. She writes primarily about policy and politics and is a regular panelist on CNN's Capital Gang.

Inside the Magic Bubble

By Margaret Carlson/TIME

TIME magazine

Around Washington, those in awe of the President's resilience say that if Bill Clinton were the Titanic, the iceberg would have gone down. On Thursday night, he lived out that metaphor when he was host to Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair at a formal dinner in the East Room. Like a brightly lit ocean liner on a dark sea, the White House floated above the scandal for five hours, as 240 guests clinked glasses and basked in the glow of being rich, of being powerful, of being there.

It was eerie. Just getting the most coveted ticket in Washington--to dine with those two powerful heads of state--lent the evening an illusion of invulnerability: that all is right in the world because all is right at this moment. There was the President, charming and being charmed by the bicoastal Masters of the Universe: Steven Spielberg, Barry Diller, Jack Welch, Warren Buffett, Tom Hanks, Ralph Lauren, John F. Kennedy Jr., Tina Brown, Anna Wintour, Barbara Walters, Peter Jennings. Bad luck seemed as far away as it must have seemed in the ballroom of the Titanic. How can anything be wrong when Stevie Wonder and Sir Elton John have come to sing to you?

But shortly after dinner, in a white tent over the West Terrace, as Wonder began You Are the Sunshine of My Life, an aide handed Clinton confidant Harry Thomason a printout off the Internet of a New York Times story about Betty Currie's testimony. The sight of Thomason hunched over in the dim blue light with Clinton adviser Rahm Emanuel, straining to read, set off a buzz among the reporters on the press riser behind them. Abruptly, Peter Jennings left. Stop the music: Clinton may be done in--and by his own secretary.

So often scandals come to this. The fate of those on the upper deck hangs on the mettle of those below. History belongs to Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright--until it devolves to Dwight Chapin and Rose Mary Woods and Betty Currie. But this time we have more than the keeper of the secrets moving center stage; we have the moral center of a drama that had lacked one. If Linda Tripp has come to be the Iago of the piece, full of malice, Currie occupies a place of goodness nearly unparalleled. One of her closest friends, Judy Green, a vice president of People for the American Way, says, "Betty wouldn't be an enabler or look the other way if she sensed or saw anything wrong. She would have left rather than let something inappropriate go on." When Currie says "so help me God" before a grand jury, she means it. She won't "forget" what she'd rather not remember. If she knows something awful happened in the Oval Office, everyone is right to be worried.

As she plows through the press mob or watches as the lawn of her suburban bungalow is chewed up by a stakeout, the anguish visible on her face comes from her knowledge of Bill Clinton, the man up close, not the President we write about from afar. No doubt she's been a victim of his carelessness, as so many have, but she has also been the recipient of a hundred kindnesses. When her brother and sister died suddenly and young in the space of six months, Clinton dropped everything to go to both funerals.

The band played on last Thursday as the President and First Lady danced till 1 a.m. to My Girl and In the Mood. Later reports would suggest that Currie's testimony would not sink Clinton, after all. For now, the ship of state sails on.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: February 16, 1998

The Press And The Dress
Drip Drip Drip
Behind The Scenes With Monica
Just An Affectionate Guy
Ain't We Got Fun
Time To Off Saddam?
With A Little Help From His Friends
Eyes On The Oval
The Art of the Leak
Inside the Magic Bubble
Give Me a Break!

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