The Clinton Sex Scandal

The Clinton Sex Scandal

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 24 1998 3:30 AM

The Clinton Sex Scandal

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       Assume, for purposes of speculation, that Monica Lewinsky didn't fantasize what most people would call a sexual relationship with the president. Is there any way out for Clinton? Here are his current options, considered from a purely Machiavellian perspective.

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1) Brazen It Out:
       This appears to be the White House strategy so far. Clinton is hoping that Monica Lewinsky will stick by her sworn deposition in the Paula Jones case, in which she said she did not have an affair with the president, and disavow the tapes on which she talks to Linda Tripp about what sounds like an affair. Lewinsky might claim that she was boasting or discussing a novel she was writing, or she might simply refuse to say anything more, taking the Fifth and refusing to testify. Without her testimony, Independent Counsel Ken Starr would have little hope of indicting Vernon Jordan or Clinton for perjury, subornation, or obstruction of justice. The Tripp tapes may be inadmissible as evidence, and won't do much good in any case if Lewinsky won't back them up as a witness. But even if Lewinsky sides with him, Clinton probably would have to acknowledge something, such as a flirtatious friendship, which he now recognizes as inappropriate. He could continue to maintain that it did not constitute an affair or a sexual relationship, decline to define "affair" or "sexual relationship" (Slate's Jack Shafer takes a shot), beg forgiveness from Lewinsky and from his wife, and attempt to change the subject.
       Odds of success: 20 percent.
       If Lewinsky still carries a torch for Clinton, this just might work. But she would have to be willing to do a Susan McDougal for him--go to jail rather than testify with immunity. If this happens, Starr might become the villain by trying to squeeze a confused kid. The story might become his Ahab-like pursuit of the president, leading to a "pox on both your houses" attitude toward Clinton and Starr. Clinton could obstinately stay in office, and there would be no legal way to remove him. But if Lewinsky talks, this strategy fails. Clinton would have to try to discredit yet another accuser. Because she has been drawn in involuntarily, she can't be portrayed as being motivated by greed, or be cast as a puppet of the right wing. Feminists would go crazy. Clinton's only hope for discrediting Lewinsky is if the media decide that she is not credible, he stays vague, and the whole thing remains ambiguous and unresolved. But this is a strategy for enfeebled survival, at best.

2) Contrition:
       What if Clinton goes on television with his wife to grovel and "confess," as he did about Gennifer Flowers on 60Minutes during the Super Bowl in 1992? If he hurries, he could use the same venue again. Bill could tell Connie Chung that while he broke no laws, he yielded to temptation of an unspecified nature. He deeply regrets the pain he has caused his wife and daughter. He begs Hillary and the American people for their forgiveness. He is a sinner, but he believes in redemption and cares deeply about the country.
       Odds of Success: 5 percent.
       In Watergate, this would have been called a "modified limited hangout"--you admit wrongdoing, but not all of it, and you shift the blame. The difference is that this time, there's no Haldeman or Erlichman--no fall guy but Clinton himself. And at this point, no one will be satisfied with an abstract confession. How did the president seduce Monica Lewinsky? How many other women have there been, and who are they? What really happened with Paula Jones? Unless Clinton is honest about his sexual escapades, no one will believe that he didn't encourage others to cover them up. While addressing the public directly might create a certain amount of sympathy, it probably wouldn't even buy him much time. It might make him seem more ridiculous as his presidency collapses.

3) Full Confession:
       Clinton comes forward with the truth in full, but not in pornographic detail. He became sexually involved with Monica Lewinsky. He has always had a problem controlling his appetites. He has been in denial about them, which is what led him to mislead, if not lie to, the public. He begs his wife and the American people for their forgiveness. He is seeking professional help for his sex addiction.
       Odds of Success: 15 percent.
       This would be a Hail Mary pass, and has the advantage of boldness. Clinton admits what most people think they already know about him. This would pre-empt additional stories about sexual escapades since the election. It's a play that could work--but if, and only if, the president did not commit a felony by lying or encouraging others to lie. A president cannot confess to a felony. Clinton would also need to hit this long ball very soon. Pleading no contest after trying everything else first would merely look pathetic.

4) Wag the Dog:
       This is the life-imitating-art scenario. In the new movie (which I foolishly described as unrealistic a few weeks ago), a president on the verge of re-election is accused of groping a Firefly Girl in the White House. To change the subject, his advisers call in Hollywood help to create a phony war with Albania. Somewhat eerily, the White House yesterday released a letter from Clinton to Congress about Albania. More likely is a war with Iraq. This would change the headlines and, if Clinton finally toppled Saddam Hussein, maybe even temper the verdict of history.
       Odds of Success: 2 percent.
       If the movie hadn't just come out, this strategy might be preferred. But if Clinton bombs Baghdad now, commentators will be quick to suggest he got the idea from the film. In fact, an escalating crisis with Iraq is a major argument for a quick, patriotic resignation. If we need to fight a war with Iraq, we need a president with the confidence of the country to prosecute it, not one who's being prosecuted.

Jacob Weisberg is Slate's chief political correspondent.