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Watergate Lessons Still Being Learned, Book Says

Bob Woodward
The Post's Bob Woodward, author of "Shadow." (AP file photo)  

Excerpts
  • Part One: President Clinton's Isolation

  • Part Two: Hillary Clinton's Anguish

  • Part Three: Starr's Investigation

  • Next Sunday: The Scandal Culture's Toll on Bush
  • By John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, June 13, 1999; Page A21

    Days after his nationally televised confession last summer of an affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, President Clinton confided despairingly to a political adviser that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton "is not going to forgive me," according to a new book on the scandal.

    And on the eve of his acquittal in the impeachment trial in February, a remorseful Clinton told a friend that both his family and his presidency had been irreparably harmed: "I'll survive, but it will never be the same."

    This portrait of an anguished, often isolated, president and an emotionally ruptured first family is presented by author and Washington Post staff writer Bob Woodward in "Shadow," which explores how the legacy of the Watergate scandal has buffeted each of the five presidents who followed Richard M. Nixon.

    More than half the book focuses on Clinton, whose personal and legal travails reflect most vividly how the modern presidency has been altered over the past quarter-century, as Washington's political culture came to be dominated by the pursuit of scandal.

    The book challenges a popular perception of Clinton's principal pursuer. Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, who had no prosecutorial experience before being appointed to investigate the Whitewater affair five years ago, has often been portrayed as a passive figure prodded on by zealous subordinates. But Woodward's reporting suggests the opposite, that the mild-mannered Starr often pushed a more aggressive strategy than even some of his advisers thought wise.

    The impeachment referral Starr sent to Congress last September was an example. The document contained a long narrative filled with graphic detail from Lewinsky about her sexual encounters with Clinton. Many critics thought the report was needlessly prurient, and Starr aides Brett Kavanaugh and William Kelley warned it might detract attention from the legal case against Clinton. But Woodward reports that Starr disagreed. "I love the narrative!" he said.

    Clinton, the book says, was "in despair" last fall when he learned that his daughter Chelsea had read the Starr report on the Internet. And once he erupted in a profanity-laced tirade to a close White House aide that Starr's goal "is to get me to lose it, to blow, to lose my cool, to lose my mind."

    This sense of besiegement is a unifying theme of "Shadow," a burden felt not only by Clinton but also by his modern predecessors. The book, which publisher Simon & Schuster is releasing Tuesday, is in part a greatest-hits medley of White House scandals.

    It begins in the closing days of Watergate, the story that vaulted Woodward to fame, and through the course of 517 pages returns to such controversies as Gerald R. Ford's pardon of Nixon; the tangled finances of Jimmy Carter's budget director, Bert Lance; the roles of Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the Iran-contra scandal; and the evolution of Clinton's Whitewater land dealings into an investigation that encompassed such diverse subjects as firings in the White House travel office and the improper handling of FBI files.

    None of the post-Watergate presidents, Woodward writes, has fully comprehended the scrutiny and accountability to which the modern White House is subject; all have tried to varying degrees to escape this new reality through evasive or deceitful behavior that in the end damaged their presidencies. "The men who followed Nixon are like addicts who have been denied their supply of drugs, in this case the alluring narcotic of presidential power," he writes.

    The book describes a 1992 deposition in which Reagan said he could not be certain who was his secretary of state, suggesting senility had badly eroded his memory earlier than his 1994 public disclosure of Alzheimer's disease. And he writes how Ford's lunchtime martinis led to slurred speeches, prompting Ford to stop drinking.

    The book details in new ways the emotional toll that various scandals imposed on Hillary Clinton, who advisers say is anticipating a run for the U.S. Senate in New York, a race that may revive some of these subjects and test anew her resilience. In August 1995, before her husband had even met Lewinsky, Woodward reports she sobbed after reading a magazine column saying the Clintons did not care how their friends and aides were hurt by their careless ethics.

    In January 1996 a new spate of news articles challenged her integrity. According to Woodward, the first lady "poured out her emotions" to White House lawyer Jane Sherburne: "I can't take this anymore. How can I go on? How can I?"

    On the day after the president acknowledged that he had deceived the nation about his sexual relationship with Lewinsky, Hillary Clinton's press secretary released a statement saying the first lady was "committed" to Clinton and "loves him very much." But Woodward said that days later, on a Martha's Vineyard vacation, the first lady acknowledged to then-White House press secretary Michael McCurry the complexity of her feelings.

    "Do I feel angry? Do I feel betrayed? Do I feel lonely? Do I feel exasperated? And humiliated?" she asked rhetorically. While she believed in the work her husband did, the first lady told McCurry she was not yet at the point "where she wanted to forgive him," Woodward writes.

    While the book portrays a first lady who shares her sense of vulnerability, it describes her husband as someone who keeps aspects of his life confined from everyone, ultimately losing the trust of many aides and his lawyers as a result of deceptions.

    Attorney Robert S. Bennett, the book says, pressed Clinton repeatedly before his January 1998 deposition in the Paula Jones lawsuit not to give false testimony (as the judge in the case later concluded he did) and suspected that Clinton was not telling the truth in his denials of a sexual relationship with various women who had been subpoenaed in the case. But Bennett believed that Clinton was lying about a relationship with an Arkansas utilities executive.

    Various people who served Clinton as White House counsel, including Bernard Nussbaum, Lloyd Cutler and Abner J. Mikva, came at various times to believe they could not fully depend on Clinton or believe his statements to them.

    The same was true of political aides, including former White House chief of staff Erskine B. Bowles. After an unpleasant trip to Capitol Hill to defend Clinton before senators, Bowles reportedly told McCurry to leak that he was soon leaving the White House: "I just want you to know that I'm not going up to do any more defense of the president on the Hill."

    "Shadow" has something that none of Woodward's previous best-selling books depicting behind-the-scenes Washington did: footnotes that describe his sources. In the past Woodward has been criticized for not indicating where he got his information. In "Shadow," the sections on earlier presidents often detail precisely who told Woodward what. Many of the Clinton passages only cite "knowledgeable sources."

    White House spokesman James E. Kennedy said yesterday the White House would have no comment on the book; Clinton declined a Woodward interview request. Carter and Ford gave interviews to the author.

    Bush turned down a request with a lengthy letter that explained his view of modern journalism: "I think Watergate and the Vietnam War are two things that moved Beltway journalism into this aggressive, intrusive 'take-no-prisoners' kind of reporting that I can now say I find offensive."

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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