In Week Two, a Survival Strategy Emerges
By Dan Balz
Some of the staff had spent the previous day, Super Bowl Sunday, attempting to disprove a damaging report that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr was seeking to question a witness who had seen the president and former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky in a compromising position.
Other officials had spent Sunday on television talk shows in the first concerted public defense of the president since the allegations that he had had a sexual affair with Lewinsky and later urged her to lie about it had exploded in the press on Jan. 21. The defenders, however, had played to mixed reviews. While they had assailed Starr as a biased prosecutor, they had pleaded ignorance whenever they were asked about the relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky -- or about any facts of the matter.
No one thought things were going well. For all the confidence Clinton's defenders had attempted to display in public, there was a palpable sense of a beleaguered White House. Asked to assess the president's situation late Sunday night, one administration official said ominously, "As bad as it gets."
None of the staff in the room that Monday morning knew the whole story. Nobody knew what Lewinsky was prepared to tell Starr. Nobody knew what, if anything, Starr and his investigators had uncovered to corroborate what was believed to be on tape recordings of conversations between Lewinsky and Linda R. Tripp, the Pentagon employee whose call to Starr on Jan. 12 had triggered the investigation. Finally, nobody in the White House could talk to Clinton about the case except first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and a few lawyers, and they were not sharing what secrets they knew with the staff.
Clinton's State of the Union address was fast approaching. Everyone agreed the president should say nothing about the scandal in the speech, but that decision created its own problem. Clinton had been out of public view since Thursday. His only comments on the scandal, made in a series of interviews the day the story broke, had appeared evasive and lawyerly. His performance, in the estimation of one old friend, was "a disaster" that had left the public confused, the media dissatisfied and the staff demoralized.
On Sunday afternoon, half a dozen of the president's most senior advisers concluded that Clinton could not hide out until after his State of the Union address. "It was a pressure cooker," one official said. "We had to let off steam." Led by Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles, a small delegation proposed to Clinton that he make another statement about the scandal before the Tuesday speech. Clinton agreed, as did his lawyers. But the legal team objected to any setting that would expose him to questions. Finally, they decided to add Clinton to a previously scheduled event on child care Monday morning at the White House.
Now it was a few minutes before the event, and the president and his advisers were going over a few last details in the Oval Office. Hillary Clinton was there too. She had spent the weekend rallying old friends behind the president, and her efforts not only had helped to boost spirits among the staff but also appeared to have stiffened the resolve of the president. "I feel we've been in a daze the last couple of days," the president said. "It's good to be back on our feet."
Clinton walked the five short steps from his office to the Roosevelt Room and took his place with the others for the child care and education announcements. When it was his turn, he talked for a few minutes about the new proposals and then shifted subjects.
"Now I have to go back to work on my State of the Union speech," he said. "And I worked on it until pretty late last night." He seemed to chuckle at that. "But I want to say one thing to the American people." His face suddenly hardened and he glared past the audience toward the cameras: "I want you to listen to me," he began, wagging his finger for emphasis. "I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time. Never. These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people."
The president turned from the lectern and left the room.
Clinton's denial on Monday morning opened another remarkable week in the life of a scandal that defies definition. The week before, the crisis was memorable for shocking and salacious allegations, the perilous state of Clinton's presidency and the intensity of the media's pursuit of the story. Last week, it was memorable because what happened was equally unpredictable and unexpected.
There was nothing linear about the way things were playing out. The crisis shifted from warp speed almost to slow motion. A scandal that had appeared destined for quick and clean resolution -- one that had seemed to demand full and immediate answers for the good of the country -- suddenly looked more complicated. Negotiations between Starr's office and Lewinsky's lawyers dragged on inconclusively and, as the legal gears ground more slowly, the White House, schooled on scandal and permeated with keen instincts for survival, began to devise the outlines of a strategy to fight back.
From one of the worst weeks of his presidency, Clinton emerged to enjoy, at least by some measures, one of his best. He delivered his State of the Union speech to strong reviews. He drew enthusiastic crowds in Illinois and Wisconsin. Defying political gravity, his approval ratings soared to their highest levels ever. With the help of a staunch defense and some partisan offense from Hillary Clinton, he clamped a lid on information coming from the White House about the scandal and dug in. Though far from safely through the crisis, Clinton found himself with some room to breathe. He was again, if only for a few days, the Comeback Kid.
But at the end of the week, there were still more questions than answers about where the crisis was heading. Some were aimed squarely at the president.
How did the White House explain evidence of a late December meeting between Clinton and Lewinsky after she had been subpoenaed to testify in the Jones case and intensive efforts by Vernon E. Jordan Jr. to help find her a job at the time she prepared her affidavit, and how did those events add to knowledge about the president's relationship with Lewinsky?
Why had the president decided not to answer questions after promising an explanation as soon as possible?
What was the state of play between Lewinsky's attorneys and the independent counsel's office, and could Starr successfully implicate Clinton without Lewinsky's full cooperation as a witness against the president?
Had the Starr investigation produced any solid evidence to corroborate the most damaging allegations in the case, or were his investigators chasing something illusory?
Had the American people decided they just didn't care about Clinton's private behavior, or were they merely withholding judgment in the Lewinsky matter until the facts became clear?
Will there ever be clear answers in what may shape up as a classic case of "he said, she said"? If there aren't, will Clinton continue to enjoy the confidence of the American people and the support of Democrats in Congress?
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company