For Clinton, It Seems Like a Familiar Cycle
By David Maraniss
On the eve of what he expected to be a difficult interrogation concerning his sex life, Bill Clinton met with a few close advisers to discuss how he should answer the indelicate questions. The very notion that he would have to talk about his private life infuriated him; he argued that the concern was hypocritical and irrelevant, and that if he were divorced no one would care at all. Finally, it was agreed that he would offer a modified confession along these lines: There had been some problems, but he and his wife, Hillary, had worked through their troubles and were committed to their marriage.
With the response seemingly decided upon, Clinton took a break from the strategy meeting and went to dinner in Georgetown with an old friend. A few hours later, he returned and said, "Hell, I just had dinner with Vernon Jordan and Jordan said, 'Screw 'em! Don't tell 'em anything!'‚"
The silent approach would not work, Clinton was told, and he reluctantly agreed to return to the earlier plan. That was in September 1991. The interrogation the next day was at a breakfast of Washington political journalists. In a few weeks, Clinton would announce for president and begin the journey that took him to where he is today, nearly seven years later a second-term president seeking counsel from a small group of his lawyers on the eve of what will be a far more significant interrogation concerning his sex life.
This time, the questions will be asked not by the news media but by the unsparing independent counsel, Kenneth W. Starr, and his dogged deputies. The subject matter is not just Clinton's sexual behavior but also whether he committed perjury or obstructed justice to cover up aspects of an alleged relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, a former White House intern. The answers he provides Monday afternoon will have consequences for the future of his presidency.
The day of reckoning Monday, two days before Clinton's 52nd birthday, is unprecedented in the history of the American presidency the first time a sitting president has ever testified to a grand jury in a criminal proceeding in which he is the primary target. But there is nothing unexpected about it when it comes to this particular president. The patterns of Clinton's troubles are so familiar that the situation he finds himself in now, aside from his innocence or guilt, comes as a largely predictable chapter in his endlessly melodramatic life.
There is a peculiar symmetry to the Clinton story: His capacity to create crises for himself is matched only by his ability to survive them. In times of peril, he has called on a series of learned skills and instinctive reactions that have served him well over the years but now are being tested as never before. These include asserting his innocence in the face of skepticism; compartmentalizing his troubles and maintaining an easy-going public persona; counting on his wife to transform their private trauma into a political cause; polling the public; playing out his options as long as possible, waiting for something lucky to happen, trying to figure out the answers to the next test.
The internal tension in Clinton's survival plan usually involves a conflict over what he should say and when he should say it. His instincts are to explain himself as little as possible, modifying his position only by arcane semantic increments, until and unless he faces a pragmatic demand to do otherwise to survive.
Predicting the Test
It is in Clinton's nature to think of the difficulties he gets into as a series of final exams. Some people become anxious and lose their bearings before a test; Clinton's reaction is the opposite. He is the ingenious but nonchalant student who always excelled at taking tests. As an undergraduate at Georgetown, he studied the whims and inclinations of his professors, flattered them, emulated them, and by the end of the semester could predict what questions they would ask on finals. At Yale Law School, he could skip class for months, borrow a friend's notes for eleventh-hour cramming, and still score higher than the dutiful note taker.
It is that second characteristic, Clinton as the carefree quiz whiz, that has allowed him to maintain his relatively calm public persona in recent weeks. But the first trait, his preternatural ability to predict the questions on an exam, seems more tenuous now than at any time before. Unlike a droll professor from Clinton's college days, Starr has not been susceptible to flattery, and he refused White House requests that the president be apprised of the line of questioning beforehand.
Clinton, the natural politician, has shown an insatiable hunger for information about the people and environments in which he will operate, constantly plying aides, friends, acquaintances, even strangers with his two trademark queries: Whadaya hear? and What else? Circumstances have forced him to change that style somewhat. Many associates have been afraid to talk to him for fear of being subpoenaed. The president told one friend that he has worked out much of his thinking late at night while playing solitaire. His daily study group has been reduced to his wife and his lawyers. While they have tried to construct an approximation of the prosecution's case, they do not know the universe of evidence amassed on the other side: what Starr and his deputies know, what the 23 grand jurors know, what can or cannot be refuted.
The grave danger of not knowing all the questions was brought home to the president on the January day that he was deposed in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit. "Now," said one of Jones's lawyers to the president, "do you know a woman named Monica Lewinsky?" And so began a round of 50 questions on a subject that Clinton had not anticipated. He did not know that the Jones lawyers had been tipped off to Linda R. Tripp's tape recordings of Lewinsky talking about her relationship with Clinton. Those moments in the deposition room, said one former White House lawyer, "had to be among the most frightening of Bill Clinton's career all he could have been thinking was 'How did this happen?' and 'I can never let this happen again.'‚"
If and when Clinton, during his testimony Monday and in a likely speech to the public afterward, modifies his earlier denials of having had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, his change will be motivated in large part by his memory of the Jones deposition, a rare test that he failed, and by his inability to intuit the least obvious questions on Starr's list.
Waiting for Luck
During many of the personal and political crises of his life, Clinton has followed a pattern of being patient until luck comes his way, which seems to happen quite often. It is not blind luck, but an instinctive sense of timing combined with manipulated luck.
The most obvious example was during the late 1960s, when he faced the first traumatic test of his adult life. He opposed the war in Vietnam and did not want to serve in the military, but also did not want to be considered a draft dodger. He dragged out his decision for as long as possible, delaying one induction date, joining the ROTC and then backing out of that agreement when the first draft lottery came around and he drew a lucky number, 311, so high that he would never be called.
In politics his providence has taken a different form. At several critical points when his career seemed threatened, he has been lucky about who his adversaries were and how they eventually overplayed their hands against him. The latest and most significant instance came late in 1995, when the Republicans in Congress unwittingly handed him back his faltering presidency, along with a second term, by shutting down the government an act that Clinton in essence goaded them into, and that made them appear reckless and allowed him to remodel himself as the moderate voice of reason.
As the president has played out his options in responding to the Lewinsky matter, it is partly with that lucky history in mind: Perhaps Starr, with his tendency to appear sanctimonious, would overplay his hand in the end, and something equivalent to the lucky draft number would drop from the sky.
All in the Family
Clinton received much unsolicited advice in recent weeks to take the mea culpa route to survival. Key Republicans such as Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), and former Clinton aides including Leon E. Panetta, George Stephanopoulos and Dick Morris, all have stated that the surest way for Clinton to save his presidency is to make a public confession and seek forgiveness. The notion of redemption is one of the strongest themes of Clinton's Southern Baptist perspective. Every day to him is a new day. But there is a countervailing instinct in Clinton not to apologize unless he sees no other choice, and then to do it reluctantly or half-heartedly. His historic tendency is to think that his problems are someone else's fault, sometimes with reason, other times not.
The only true mea culpa speech he has given came when he was trying to resurrect his career after losing the Arkansas governorship in 1980. Clinton's instincts were to find out everything he could about what he had done wrong, to gather as much information as he could, to change his approach, but not to apologize. He relented only when Dick Morris, who was brought in as his pollster and consultant after the defeat, made the pragmatic argument that an apology was the only way Clinton could win back the governorship. Morris had discovered in his surveys that voters had a paternal attitude toward Clinton, thinking of him as a member of their family, their precocious, occasionally wayward, prodigal son, whom they voted against because they wanted to teach him a lesson for the way he had behaved and governed during his first term raising taxes, seeming arrogant but whom they did not intend to send into permanent exile.
From that Morris crafted a parable of forgiveness. "You have to recognize your sins, confess to them, and promise to sin no more," he told Clinton. "And in the act of contrition, you have to be humble, you can't be self-justified. You have to say, 'I'm very sorry, ashamed. I know I did wrong and I'll never do it again.'‚" Clinton did not mind acting sorry and humble, but he bristled at the idea of admitting specific mistakes and would not have agreed to the public apology unless Hillary and Morris had persuaded him that it was his only hope. He delivered the mea culpa in television ads in which he turned to what became the family parable, saying that when he was growing up his daddy never had to whup him twice for making the same mistake.
If Clinton delivers any form of moderately apologetic statement in conjunction with his testimony Monday, it is worth remembering what happened immediately after his mea culpa in Arkansas. His popularity took a quick and drastic fall. It appeared for a few weeks that the apology had been a fatal mistake; then, suddenly, voter anger dissipated and the apology was accepted. Clinton was not only forgiven, he was inoculated from future attacks on the issues he had been forced to apologize about in the first place.
In the major controversies involving Clinton's sex life, beginning with the Gennifer Flowers allegations and running through Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky, the method of defense was established by Hillary Clinton more than her husband. But that does not mean that the Clintons have always had frank discussions about the details of his possible indiscretions. In the Jones and Lewinsky cases, according to several sources, Clinton shared his innermost concerns with his lawyers more than with Hillary; there is a degree of "Don't ask, don't tell," in their partnership. Her instincts have been to defend him publicly no matter what; and his instincts have been to realize that she would do so, making it less urgent for him to tell her everything.
Hillary viewed their appearance as a couple on "60 Minutes" during the 1992 campaign, at which Clinton acknowledged that he had caused problems in their marriage but had worked them out, and denied having an affair with Flowers, not as an apology or confession, but as a means of evoking the family parable. She also hoped that her unwavering support of her husband would inoculate him from future attacks, employing the theory that had worked in Arkansas. From then on, her strategy was that the best defense was a strong offense. She attacked the messengers, dismissed the message, asserted that Clinton had been the victim of a right-wing political conspiracy.
It is unlikely, given that history, that she would agree to an apology or confession from her husband in the Lewinsky matter unless pragmatism overtakes their basic instincts and convinces them both that it is the only way to save his presidency. The patterns of their relationship indicate that he could not give that sort of apology without her approval. If it finally seems unavoidable that her husband has to explain his actions more fully, history also suggests that she will again recommend that they turn to the family parable, with Clinton, who is still in many ways, the precocious, occasionally wayward, prodigal son, but now for the entire country, presenting himself as remorseful and humble, but not openly confessional.
The riddle of Bill Clinton's life is the opposite of the chicken or the egg, not which came first, but which will come last: loss or recovery. One has followed the other with unerring regularity since the beginning of his political career. When the public perceives him as being down, he is already plotting his comeback; when he thinks he is on top, the seeds of disaster have been planted. It was perhaps only fitting that at the very moment that he was making his boldest recovery in the White House, when the Republicans had shut down the government, that young Monica Lewinsky appeared on the scene, an intern fetching pizzas for the late-working president and his aides. Recovery and loss, loss and recovery, one following another, and the final unanswered question is which one will define Clinton at the end.
David Maraniss is the author of "First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton."
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