The Clinton Sex Scandal

The Clinton Sex Scandal

Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 4 1998 3:30 AM

The Clinton Sex Scandal

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       Richard Nixon had Rabbi Baruch Korff and Father John McLaughlin, the two clerical apologists who sallied forth to defend him during the darkest days of Watergate. Bill Clinton has Ann Lewis and Paul Begala. Among his many representatives and surrogates, these two stand out as Clinton's Stalinists--professional propagandists with no apparent qualm about lying on their boss's behalf.
       Lewis is more like Rabbi Korff, the brown-nosing outsider who was invited inside as rats abandoned the sinking Nixon ship. Like Korff, Lewis came to the president's attention by organizing "independent" demonstrations of support, raising money to publish open letters in praise of the first lady in the New York Times. Such displays of fealty led to Lewis' appointment as White House communications director. Like Korff (who said, "Richard Nixon will go down in history as the greatest president of the century"), Lewis has a cloying manner and a penchant for going way beyond what is necessary in her apologia. Like Korff, she seems well and truly brainwashed.
       Jan. 24, on Larry King Live, King asked her, "You have no doubts then in your president. ... Ann Lewis has no doubts that he is lying to you and to us?"
       "I have no doubts," Lewis responded. "I believe this president, my president. I have known him for years. I have seen him in some very difficult times. I have seen how hard he works. I have seen how much he cares. I believe in Bill Clinton."
       Two days later, Lewis was asked on Good Morning America if she could say for certain whether Clinton had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. "I can say with absolute assurance the president of the United States did not have a sexual relationship, because I have heard the president of the United States say so," she responded. "He has said it, he could not be more clear. He could not have been more direct."
       As Lewis acknowledged, however, she had not herself asked Clinton whether he knew Lewinsky, and would not ask him because, as she put it, "If there is one thing we do not have a shortage of in Washington right now, it is investigations." In other words, Lewis' qualification as a spokeswoman is that she unconditionally believes all Clinton's public statements.
       Begala is more like Father McLaughlin--a hair-splitting logician, able to spin out a scholastic rationalization for anything (and likely to cut his losses if it ever becomes clear that the game is truly up). Like Lewis, Begala says he accepts whatever the president says. "I believe him completely, and I know he's telling the truth," Begala said on This Week Without David Brinkley Jan. 25. Like Lewis, he acknowledges that he has not directly asked the president what his relationship with Lewinsky was. But his reasoning is far trickier. Where Lewis said it was simply not her role, Begala told Sam Donaldson, "I cannot, because of the odd world we live in, be a fact finder because I'm not his private attorney in this. And I will find myself, like many of my friends, with hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal bills, because we have here an independent counsel firing off subpoenas as if he's got an Uzi and running up huge legal bills on people just for having been in a meeting."
       Like McLaughlin's theological explanations of why the tapes didn't prove Nixon was immoral, Begala's excuse is too clever by half. He undermined his case on Larry King Live a couple of days later when he indicated that he had in fact talked to Clinton about the truth of the allegations in the course of discussions about whether it would be appropriate for Clinton to deny them publicly. "He made it clear to us. He wanted to go out and be very forceful and fervent and final that these charges are not true and the American people need to know that and any full and fair investigation will clear him at the end of the day," Begala said. By his own argument, then, Ken Starr is now free to subpoena him to tell what Clinton told him about Lewinsky.
       Most of the administration's other spokesmen are either unwilling or deeply reluctant to lie on the president's behalf. For instance, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry, who bears the brunt of the press's daily aggression, has perfected a plethora of dodges. He dismisses awkward questions with a joke. He says he is out of the loop and must remain so, not because it would place him in legal jeopardy, but because it would heighten Clinton's legal jeopardy to talk to a spokesman not being covered by the attorney-client privilege. (Of course, if this is true there's no reason why a lawyer like Lanny Breuer or Mickey Kantor couldn't speak for Clinton on this topic.) McCurry distinguishes between what the president has said and what he, McCurry, thinks--which he says is irrelevant. These excuses don't all hold water, but McCurry is clearly doing what he can to remain loyal and at the same time avoid fibbing.
       Yet McCurry's charm only temporarily obscures the untenable position he is in: being forced to answer for someone without being able to ask that person questions himself. The truly principled thing to do in this situation would be to resign. Still, the chief fault remains Clinton's. It is the president who has left his defenders in an awful quandary by not telling them the truth. As Meg Greenfield wrote in her Washington Post column this week, "If his friends and clients owe him their loyalty, he owes them the straight story."
       "I never asked anyone to lie," Clinton said in his original statement about the scandal. Maybe not, but lying is what he is in effect asking his defenders to do right now. The amazing thing is, a few of them don't even seem to mind.

Jacob Weisberg is Slate's chief political correspondent.