The Clinton Sex Scandal

The Clinton Sex Scandal

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 23 1998 3:30 AM

The Clinton Sex Scandal

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       Opinion here is divided. Among the reporters I ran into covering the Clintern scandal today, about half seem to believe the jig is finally up. They assume that the accusations about Clinton's relations with Monica Lewinsky constitute something radically and catastrophically different from everything else he has faced, and that the issue is not whether his presidency will collapse but how and how soon. Others who have covered Clinton and his travails think he deserves to go down, but have developed a superstitious sense about his survival. Nothing has killed him yet, so maybe nothing can.
       I am in the former camp. I joined it when I saw George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America yesterday. Stephanopoulos usually plays a role halfway between commentator and administration partisan. Now he was scrambling for a lifeboat. Commenting on the charges that Clinton had an affair with the then-21-year-old intern and tried to cover it up, Stephanopoulos said, "If they're true, they're not only politically damaging, but could lead to impeachment proceedings." I was waiting for him to say, "Of course I don't think they are true," but he never did. Stephanopoulos knows where a lot of bodies are buried. If he is preparing for life after Clinton, the rest of us had better do the same.
       Subsequent glimpses of Clinton did nothing to allay my suspicions. I didn't get the impression that he was trying to play nice with the truth on NewsHour With Jim Lehrer when he denied a "sexual relationship" with Lewinsky in the present rather than in the past. But Clinton was suspicious in another, more serious way. He totally failed to communicate any sense of outrage, which would be irresistible, I would think, if the accusation of a relationship with Lewinsky were a fabrication or a fantasy. Clinton also made an amazing Freudian slip. "What I'm trying to do is to contain my natural impulses and get back to work," he told Lehrer. I think he meant that he was trying to control his impulse to tell the full story against the advice of his lawyers--though it's not clear why he can't. But it sounded like he was talking another kind of manly impulse, which he has been trying to contain for a long time, to little effect.
       The public schedule of the scandal was a series of public statements. There were three today--Kenneth Starr outside his law office, Mike McCurry at the White House briefing room, and Vernon Jordan at a hotel. Outside Starr's office, the press was in full piranha mode. Cameramen and soundmen with furry microphones shoved and shouted, trying to get a shot at Starr and to keep others from blocking their view. It sounded like something from M.A.S.H., with shouts of "Everybody Down!" and "Out of the Way!" The presence of so many cameras had a magnetic effect on anti-abortion protestors who were in town for a rally and who tried to work their placards into the picture frame. When Starr finally emerged from his marble palace on Pennsylvania Avenue and made his way to a clutch of microphones, he was totally inaudible. A million viewers on CNN could hear him, but reporters standing five feet away couldn't. Apparently, he said nothing significant, anyway.
       Over at the White House, reporters were waiting to give Mike McCurry his daily drubbing. Sam Donaldson, who has returned to the White House beat with amazing timing, was testing his microphone level, booming out a facetious oath of office: "I, Albert J. Gore ..." McCurry arrived with a battered grin, and a quip: "Welcome, ladies and gentleman, to the theater of the absurd." The only significant aspect of his briefing, I thought, was what he said when Wolf Blitzer asked whether Monica Lewinsky was unstable. "Every discussion I've been at at the White House, there's been no suggestion of that kind made to me and I can't imagine anyone in a responsible position at the White House would be making any such assertion," McCurry said. "I have heard some expressions of sympathy for what clearly someone who is a young person would be going through at a moment like this."
       Reading between the lines, this might constitute something of a message to a wavering witness: We're on your side against these jackals. Jordan, in his very brief press conference, seemed to be sending a similar kind of smoke signal. In saying that Lewinsky told him she had never had an affair with the president, he may have been saying to her and her lawyer: Stick with your story that you never had an affair with the president. Hang tough, and we'll hang with you. Jordan took no questions, leaving unanswered, among other issues, why he was asking Lewinsky about her nonaffair with the president if she was meeting with him only for career advice. My prediction is that Jordan will survive even if Clinton doesn't. After all, he's got the rest of the Washington establishment behind him. Albert Hunt of the Wall Street Journal wrote today that the idea of Jordan asking someone to commit perjury was unfathomable. "Mr. Jordan, a director of Dow Jones, which publishes this newspaper, is a longtime friend," Hunt wrote. "I am convinced the allegations against him are false."
       The "mood here in Washington," a cliché of evening-news broadcasts, is more palpable and strange than I have ever felt it. It is a combination of exhilaration, tedium, and horror that I imagine characterizes life in a battle zone. There is the thrill of something momentous occurring, buttressed by a sense of nothing happening at any given moment and a gnawing feeling of awfulness and degradation. When you stop to reflect on the possibility that Clinton has destroyed his presidency over this, your heart sinks. My first feeling was that I was glad I didn't have any kids to have to explain this to. My second was that I was glad I wasn't abroad, representing a country that must look ridiculous in the world's eyes.
       One curious sight I saw today was Lloyd Cutler, a sometime adviser of Clinton's and an eminence even more grise than Vernon Jordan, walking away from the White House with Warren Rudman, the former Republican senator from New Hampshire. The two elder statesmen were strolling down Pennsylvania Avenue very slowly and dejectedly, like two weary ghosts of Washington scandals past.

Jacob Weisberg is Slate's chief political correspondent.