Clinton Plays Many Roles, Assuredly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 22, 1998; Page A1
President Clinton gazed directly into the camera and, with a politician's flair for fielding questions and a performer's confidence before a crowd, let go of secrets he had been clinging to for months.
Clinton confessed, admitting his embarrassment about indulging in "intimate encounters" with Monica S. Lewinsky. He flattered, praising prosecutors for their intelligence and hard work. At times he seethed, dripping contempt for the lawyers and political foes he said were trying to trip him over "trick questions." And once he seemed to flinch with disgust as prosecutors asked him about alleged sex play with a cigar.
On the whole, however, the president came across in his grand jury testimony as someone comfortable and self-assured before a camera and acutely conscious that he was participating in a proceeding that was as much political as legal.
Slipping in and out of different roles, Clinton was alternately the lawyer, asserting it was not his job to volunteer answers to questions that attorneys in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case had failed to ask; the accuser, complaining to a senior deputy of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr about the "bias" he betrayed; and, above all, the victim, a man subjected to a "dragnet" in which political foes wanted to "take a wrecking ball to me and see if they could do some damage."
An irony was quickly apparent yesterday after the videotape of the president's Aug. 17 grand jury appearance was aired. For months, Clinton resisted giving testimony to the grand jury. The hasty public release of the tape was denounced by the White House as an act of unseemly partisanship. Yet the president's videotaped appearance represented the most sustained -- and, his aides now assert, the most effective -- defense to date of his behavior in the Lewinsky controversy.
White House aides, who had anxiously braced for the video's release, pronounced themselves pleased with the result. While Clinton showed flashes of irritation and anger, advance descriptions of a man struggling to control himself, offered by some who had seen the tape, were exaggerated. There were plentiful examples of rhetorical gymnastics as Clinton made his case that receiving oral sex did not constitute "sexual relations" as he understood the term in the Jones case. But the public already knew that, no matter how strained, this is Clinton's story.
"There's a general sense that the president acquitted himself well," said White House adviser Paul Begala. "He spoke truthfully about a painful matter."
Begala predicted a "coalescence around a view that the process [of releasing the tape and grand jury documents] was partisan, and the questions focused on sex."
The tape offered the most vivid and unfiltered view the public has had of how Clinton perceives the various allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against him, and, in particular, how he perceives the accusers.
Lewinsky is "basically a good girl" with "a good heart and a good mind" who has been "burdened by some unfortunate conditions of her upbringing," Clinton testified. Former White House volunteer Kathleen E. Willey is a woman of "shattered credibility" who "was not telling the truth" when she accused Clinton of sexually harassing her.
The lawyers for Paula Jones who sought the testimony of both women were political opportunists who knew they had a "bogus suit on the law and a bogus suit on the facts" but pursued it anyway so they could find damaging information on Clinton and publicize it with "constant, unrelenting, illegal leaks." Linda R. Tripp, who told both the Starr and the Jones teams about Lewinsky, is a woman who "betrayed her friend . . . stabbed her in the back."
And Starr's investigation itself, in Clinton's mind, is a suspect operation -- working in league with Tripp, focused unduly on his private life, unable to comprehend that a president might have other things on his mind than keeping track of every meeting and conversation he had with a young woman.
"So, I didn't have perfect memory of all these events that have now, in the last seven months -- since Ms. Lewinsky was kept for several hours by four or five of your lawyers and four or five FBI agents, as if she were a serious felon -- these things have become the most important matters in the world," Clinton snapped at prosecutor Solomon L. Wisenberg. "At the moment they were occurring, many other things were going on."
Public reaction to the video may depend on what parts of the long session people actually see. In this sense, the testimony is somewhat akin to a presidential debate, when it often takes several days to determine which side is perceived to have won. Several television networks last night gave prominent attention to Clinton's explanations -- admittedly tortured, Clinton aides concede -- of what acts constitute sexual relations.
"How people react to what was arguably an unnecessary day in the life of our country, an awful day, will be judgments that are going to be made in living rooms and at dining tables around the country tonight," said White House press secretary Michael McCurry. "There's no way that we can predict what people will think."
Excerpts, however, cannot capture the full nature of the confrontation between Clinton and Starr's team and the sharp contrasts between them.
Clinton was seen in an array of moods. Sometimes he impassively rested his face against his hand. Sometimes he clenched his jaw and narrowed his eyes in irritation. Sometimes he smiled contentedly, as though he was certain he was getting the better of his questioners.
The Starr lawyers were never seen. They were only heard as disembodied voices that were sometimes tinged with sarcasm. The effect was reminiscent of the droning teacher's voice in the "Peanuts" animated cartoon specials.
Most striking were the two sides' starkly different notions of language and memory. The Starr lawyers were relentlessly literal-minded as they drilled Clinton over the meaning of various episodes and statements. Clinton seemed to argue that language is infinitely opaque, and that sometimes two directly conflicting recollections can each be accurate in their own way.
How, lawyers pressed, could Lewinsky have been telling the truth when she signed an affidavit saying she had had no sexual relationship with Clinton and then later testified extensively about their sex acts? Clinton explained that she was probably telling the truth in the affidavit under the definition of sex as she understood it.
What about Clinton attorney Robert S. Bennett's statement at the Jones deposition -- made in Clinton's presence before a federal judge -- that there "is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape, or form" between Clinton and Lewinsky. Isn't that an "utterly false statement?" Wisenberg asked.
"It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is," Clinton responded. "If the -- if he -- if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not -- that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement."
Perhaps the most striking statement of Clinton's view of the elusiveness of objective, verifiable truth was his reference to the 1991 Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. "What I believed after it was over, I believed they both thought they were telling the truth," Clinton said.
"Fortunately, or maybe you think unfortunately," Clinton told prosecutors, "there was no special prosecutor to try to go after one or the other of them, to take sides and try to prove one was a liar."
The performance Clinton gave before the grand jury Aug. 17 provides more of a context for the president's state of mind later that day, when he acknowledged his relationship with Lewinsky to the nation for the first time in a televised speech, and issued an angry challenge to Starr to stop "prying into private lives."
White House political aides, agreeing with many on Capitol Hill, judged that speech a disaster. Some aides said yesterday that after maintaining with force and fluency before the grand jury that his testimony in the Jones case was legally accurate, Clinton may have been emboldened to then present the case to the public. And he felt free to hit back at Starr, forgetting that the public had not seen the grand jury interrogation.
As it happened, the Starr lawyers may themselves have forgotten to weigh how their questioning of Clinton might look when seen by the public. In apparent frustration with the evasiveness of their quarry, they showed no reluctance to hector the president about whether he understood the meaning of the phrase the "whole truth."
The videotape ostensibly was made solely so that a grand juror who was absent on the 17th could view it. But Clinton's side seemed to always suspect that it would find a wider audience. At the end of the president's testimony, Clinton attorney David E. Kendall asked, "Is that the only reason, Mr. Wisenberg, you have to videotape?"
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