By Lloyd Grove
It's never pleasant when the big boss urges you out on a shaky limb and then saws it off. Pulls the rug out from under you. Makes you look a fool.
It's doubly difficult when your boss happens to be president of the United States, the Leader of the Free World, and he does all this in full view of the known universe. Yet that describes the mortifying mess in which President Clinton and his most loyal defenders found themselves mired yesterday.
As the Monica Lewinsky scandal reached its tawdry nadir, members of Clinton's Cabinet and senior staff who have spent the last seven months eloquently affirming that he didn't have sex with the former White House intern were coping with widespread reports that the president was admitting to doing just that in grand jury testimony before independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Clinton's most impassioned protector, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, was simply coping.
"There has to be a bond of trust so that you know your boss is not going to stab you in the back," former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta said yesterday, bluntly describing the situation. "You can't do that to him and certainly he shouldn't do that to you."
"He did put them in an incredibly awkward position, completely by virtue of his own actions," said former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers, who joined Clinton's first presidential campaign in 1991. "The president has to apologize to them in order for all of them to go forward. He has to do it very directly, in order for them to have confidence in him, to close the circle and to allow them to function credibly. If he doesn't, he leaves them wandering in the wilderness."
The reports suggestthat the president made misleading statements about his relationship with Lewinsky not only to the American people ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman"), but also to his wife and daughter, his Cabinet, his lawyers and his top staff. Not to mention in his sworn deposition last January in the since-dismissed Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit.
But since the scandal broke, such Clintonites as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, White House communications director Ann Lewis and advisers Rahm Emanuel and Paul Begala, and notably the first lady, have taken to the airwaves to deliver stirring defenses of the president and bruising attacks on his accusers.
"I believe that the allegations are completely untrue," Albright told reporters outside the West Wing after a Cabinet meeting in which Clinton stoutly denied the charges.
"I'll second that, definitely," chimed in Commerce Secretary William Daley.
"I've already said that," agreed Education Secretary Dick Riley.
"I'll second that, too," said Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala.
Today many of those denials and defenses are, in the lingo of a previous White House scandal, "inoperative."
"When you serve the president of the United States," said Panetta, who left Clinton's White House in early 1997, "you obviously operate on a basis of trust that what he's doing and what he's saying is being honest and truthful to you always. There's always spin to put things in the best light, and I think that's kind of accepted practice. But what you're saying in terms of the facts has to be true."
Panetta's successor, Erskine Bowles, yesterday appealed for loyalty, stressing "the importance of sticking together" at a senior staff meeting, the Associated Press reported. White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry quoted Bowles as sharing some wisdom his father had given him as a boy: "It's easy to be there for someone when they're up. But it's the good ones who are there for you when you're down."
But it's not easy to feel warmly toward the man who may have burned you.
Begala was one of the president's more fiery defenders. In a typical television appearance, he told CNN's Larry King: "Come on! . . . [The president] did not have a sexual relationship with this woman."
Begala didn't return repeated phone calls yesterday.
Emanuel said on NBC's "Meet the Press": "Did he have sex? No. Sexual relations? No."
"I'm not owed an apology," he said yesterday, declining to comment further.
Lewis who has been the among Clinton's most aggressive defenders, categorically affirming that nothing inappropriate ever occurred between the president and the intern left Clinton no wiggle room in her denials. "Sex is sex, even in Washington, I've been assured," she said last January.
Yesterday she sounded decidedly subdued. "I'm not going to talk about it for a while," she said in a brief phone conversation. "I'm just not walking down any hypothetical paths. . . . I'm going to be thinking through some things."
The communications director's brother, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), another staunch Clinton defender, explained Lewis's mood: "She's very close to Hillary, who's in a personally difficult situation. She's got a friend in a very tough situation."
Hillary Clinton had accused a "vast right-wing conspiracy" of concocting the allegations, which included obstruction of justice and perjury. "Certainly I believe they're false. Absolutely," she said on NBC's "Today" show. "If that were all proven true, I think that would be a very serious offense. That is not going to be proven true."
Longtime Clinton political guru Dick Morris, who was banished from the White House after a sex scandal of his own, said: "I feel badly for Hillary. I do not weep any tears for his staff people. The staff are like blockers in a football game. Their job is to get beaten up. And any of them who were dumb enough to actually believe Clinton's stories deserve what happens to them."
Former presidential adviser George Stephanopoulos, who has become a severe critic, erupted in an unprintable epithet when his onetime rival's comments were read to him.
"These people went out and did their duty, and did it loyally and well," Stephanopoulos said. "If you're working for the president of the United States, you ask him and he gives you the answer, right then you have the obligation to make a choice. If you don't believe him, then you don't defend him. There's nothing dishonorable about taking your boss at his word."
Quoting former Lyndon Johnson aide Harry McPherson, Stephanopoulos said: "All presidents consume their staffs like fuel."
Frank said it's perfectly reasonable that his sister and other Clintonites would be so categorical in their defenses because "there's been a whole series of accusations that Ken Starr has been making, everything from Whitewater to the FBI files to the travel office, that's all disappearing. . . . Don't you think the people who made all those unwarranted accusations should apologize?"
Frank, who was at the center of a sex scandal in the House eight years ago, added: "If you're not going to tell the truth about the sex, if there are things you feel you can't tell the truth about, it's unrealistic to expect that you'd tell the truth to seven people. It's hard to segment that. And I also think, in this context, he did not set out to deliberately trap these people in deception. He himself was caught in a bad situation."
James Carville, another prominent Clintonite, elaborated on the theme of the necessary lie.
"The man said something trying to protect his family," Carville asserted. "I have a hard time blaming somebody for something I've been tempted to do myself. I'm not in an awkward position. I'm a Frenchman, man. I don't see any crime here for all this 24-hour news coverage and $50-million investigation. To tell you the truth, I was five times more upset about the welfare bill cutting illegal immigrants off benefits than this nickel-dime stuff."
Myers, however, compared the latest developments to a multibillion-dollar catastrophe. "I really do believe it's like an earthquake," she said. "The first thing you have to do is clean up the mess get the broken glass off the floor, make sure the gas is shut down. You don't immediately think: 'Omigod! How am I going to live in this house?"
Clinton's staff may be upset with him, Myers said, but he has never been quick to apologize.
"How many apologies have we gotten? Very few. A lot of explanations. He has a history of explaining. . . . He believes that character is an evolving thing."
Morris, meanwhile, theorized that Clinton believes that as a legal matter, he did not lie. "That will appear much more significant to him than to any other American, because he literally, in my judgment, thought about his capacity to truthfully deny a sexual relationship while he was having sex."
Myers added: "I didn't live through this, but as you can probably tell, I am reasonably angry about it. . . . I don't want a convoluted explanation. I want him to take responsibility for his behavior, for what he's put people through, for what he's put the country through, and for what he's put his family through."
Is there anyone to whom Clinton does not owe an apology?
"Ken Starr," Myers replied.
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