The week's big news, and how's it's being spun.
Dec. 9 1998 3:30 AM



Frame Game The Unjust War Theory

By William Saletan

Now we know, from President Clinton's own lips, why he has manipulated the truth and the law for nine months.

In the videotape of his Aug. 17 testimony before the Lewinsky grand jury, televised to the nation this morning, he admitted to fudging and dodging questions in his January deposition in the Paula Jones case. Meanwhile, he continued to fudge and dodge questions posed by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's prosecutors. But in the tape, unlike in his public statements, Clinton finally laid out a moral theory to explain his evasions. He believes he is the target of an unjust war, a series of illegitimate investigations against which he is entitled to defend himself and others by any technically legal means.

Here is Clinton's moral theory, point by point, as expressed in his testimony.

1) His initial motives for covering up his relationship with Monica Lewinsky were personal, not legal. First, he was embarrassed by his behavior. Second, he was trying to protect his family. Third, to the extent that he was trying to prevent the affair's exposure, he thought the threat was posed by journalists, not by prosecutors. "I certainly didn't want this to come out, if I could help it," said Clinton, explaining his efforts to help Lewinsky hide their affair. "I was embarrassed about it."

2) The questions Jones' lawyers asked Clinton about Lewinsky were illegitimate, because the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship wasn't sexual harassment. "Even if you look at the facts here in [the] light most unfavorable to me," Clinton argued, "no one has suggested that there was any sexual harassment on my part."

3) Clinton exploited legal technicalities to frustrate the Jones lawyers and was morally entitled to do so, because their lawsuit against him had become an unjust political war. "They knew they had a lousy case on the facts. And so their strategy, since they were being funded by my political opponents, was to have this dragnet of discovery," said Clinton. "They proceeded to cross the country and try to turn up whatever they could. ... What they wanted to do and what they did do and what they have done by the time I showed up here was to find any negative information they could on me, whether it was true or not. Get it in a deposition, and then leak it, even though it was illegal to do so. ... [They tried] to get any person in there, no matter how uninvolved with Paula Jones, no matter how uninvolved with sexual harassment, so they could hurt me politically." Clinton accused the Jones lawyers of a "gotcha game," said they "were trying to set me up and trick me," and even accused them of not being "lawful in their conduct vis-a-vis me." Therefore, Clinton argued, "in the face of their repeated illegal leaking, it was not my responsibility to volunteer a lot of information."

4) Clinton respected the law by refusing to violate it outright, though he skirted it. When Clinton explained his theory of the unjust war against him, prosecutor Bob Bittman sharply suggested, "You're not telling our grand jurors that you think [this] would give you the right to commit perjury?" Clinton replied, "No, Sir. ... I knew that in the face of their illegal activity, I still had to behave lawfully. But I wanted to be legal without being particularly helpful. ... I was determined to walk through the mine field of this deposition without violating the law."

5) Lewinsky helped Clinton thwart the Jones lawyers because she was an auxiliary target of their unjust war against Clinton, or at least because Clinton got her to see it this way. "She raised the issue with me in the context of her desire to avoid testifying, which I certainly understood, not only because there were some embarrassing facts about our relationship that were inappropriate, but also because a whole lot of innocent people were being traumatized and dragged through the mud by these Jones lawyers with their dragnet strategy," said Clinton. "I explained to her why they were doing this, and why all these women were on these lists--and people that they knew good and well had nothing to do with any sexual harassment. I explained to her that it was a political lawsuit. They wanted to get whatever they could under oath that was damaging to me. ... She didn't want to be caught up in that, and I didn't blame her."

6) Linda Tripp betrayed Lewinsky to help the Jones lawyers ambush and prosecute Lewinsky and Clinton. Prosecutors avoided mentioning Tripp, but Clinton brought her up nine times. He said she "had betrayed her friend Monica Lewinsky, stabbed her in the back, and given [the Jones lawyers] all this information" to endanger Lewinsky and nail Clinton. Tripp thus becomes the link between the spiteful, ruthless Jones lawsuit and the spiteful, ruthless Starr inquiry.

7) The Starr investigation is an escalation of the unjust war by Clinton's political enemies. "We have seen this four year, $40 million investigation come down to parsing the definition of sex," Clinton told one of his inquisitors. "You have made this the most important issue in America." He accused Starr's team of "trying to criminalize my private life" and suggested to one prosecutor, "The questions you're asking, I think, betray the bias of this operation." To another, he snapped, "I am not going to answer your trick questions."

8) The Starr investigation is an escalation of the ambush, prosecution, and exploitation of Lewinsky. Clinton called Lewinsky "a good young woman with a good heart and a good mind" and said he had assisted her job search only because "I wanted to help her get on with her life." By contrast, he told prosecutors, "four or five of your lawyers, and four or five FBI agents," had "kept" "Ms. Lewinsky ... for several hours," "as if she were a serious felon." Had there been independent counsels in 1991, he speculated that "one of them could have gone after Anita Hill, another could have gone after Clarence Thomas. I thank God there was no such thing then."

9) The video is an extension of Starr's unjust war. This is Clinton's masterstroke. Knowing the video would be released, he planted a bomb in the hope it would blow up in Starr's face. Toward the end of his testimony, he looked at the camera and said, "There's a videotape being made of this, allegedly because only one member of the grand jury is absent. This is highly unusual. ... So I think I am right to answer all the questions about perjury but not to say things which would be forever in the historic annals of the United States because of this unprecedented videotape [that] may be leaked at any time."

10) The media are an extension of the unjust war. "Newsweek," according to Clinton, "had become almost a sponsoring media outlet for the Paula Jones case and had a journalist who had been trying, so far fruitlessly, to find me in some sort of wrongdoing. ... I was trying to get the facts and trying to think of the best defense we could construct in the face of what I thought was going to be a media onslaught." This is where Clinton definitely overreached in defining his enemies. Unless he is prepared to wage a full-scale Nixonian war against the press, it is unwise of him to pick fights with news organizations, since they tend to rally around their own. In his testimony, Clinton already claimed to be fighting a war on two fronts. Did he really need another?

The talk on Capitol Hill this weekend was of partisan strife and of the increasing desperation for some kind of bipartisan compromise to resolve the Lewinsky mess and move the country beyond it. But the moral account Clinton gave in his videotaped testimony will hardly promote such a resolution. His argument is fundamentally polarizing. Either you agree with him that the Starr investigation is illegitimate, or you don't. If you don't, then Clinton is a scofflaw and has forfeited the authority to continue as president. If you do, then those Republicans in Congress who are parlaying Starr's investigation into impeachment proceedings are forfeiting their authority to make the nation's laws. The worst-case scenario is no longer that Clinton will be impeached or that he will get away with his misdeeds. It is that no matter who wins, half the people of the United States will hold the government in contempt.


Photograph of President Clinton by Brad Rickerby/Reuters.