Video Release May Help More Than Hurt Clinton
By David Maraniss
It has happened time and again throughout Bill Clinton's political career: Just when he appears most vulnerable, an unexpected bit of luck yanks him back from the brink. The release yesterday of the videotape of his Aug. 17 grand jury testimony -- a release pushed by his adversaries and fought by his allies -- may someday be remembered as the unlikeliest and most ironic of his lifetime of lucky breaks, a potentially damaging event that helped more than hurt, due in large measure to misplaced expectations that the tape would do him in.
There were, to be sure, palpably uncomfortable moments for Clinton during the four-hour grilling, and several exchanges where his wordplay seemed exceedingly cute or intentionally misleading, yet there appeared to be no single frame that will be burnished forever in public memory. Clinton, the ultimate survivor, somehow finished the ordeal laughing, a smile on his face, as though he realized at that moment that once again, following the eerily repetitive cycles of his life, his opponents might have overplayed their hand.
Though on a smaller scale and with less grave consequences, the closest ancestor to the grand jury videotape in Clinton's ceaselessly melodramatic political biography was the release of what came to be known as "the draft letter" during the early stages of the 1992 presidential campaign. In February of that year, when Clinton's candidacy was already reeling from allegations of sexual infidelity and draft-dodging, his enemies discovered and released a letter that he had written back in 1969 in which he had thanked an ROTC colonel at the University of Arkansas for "saving" him from the draft and allowing him to maintain his "political viability."
Conventional wisdom at the time held that the letter was a grievous embarrassment that might force the governor of Arkansas to drop out of the race. But Clinton's enemies, as it turned out, had utterly miscalculated how the letter would be interpreted by the public. While a paragraph-by-paragraph examination of the letter would reveal several points of deception, in its totality it came to be seen not so much as evidence of Clinton's duplicity as an eloquent expression of angst and uncertainty by a young man struggling to find the right thing to do under difficult circumstances.
In similar fashion, the grand jury videotape might have backfired. Even if a close reading of the transcript could reveal points where Clinton was not telling the truth, in its totality it made Clinton again appear to be a reasonable man struggling to survive in a difficult situation brought on by his political enemies.
This historic parallel was the first thing that came to the mind of one Republican operative viewing the videotape yesterday. "My God, I can't believe it, it's the draft letter all over again," said this consultant, who had been a campaign aide to President George Bush six years ago when the letter surfaced. Not only did the videotape show Clinton making "reasonable explanations" for everything he had said and done, this consultant concluded, but the close-camera cinematic style of the videotape only elicited sympathy: "Even I felt for him," the consultant acknowledged. "It was like the Gestapo."
What America saw yesterday was the full Clinton. He was not just the character that his enemies sought to portray: an angry man trapped by his adversaries, a conjurer of semantic legerdemain trying to slip-side out of testimony in which he may have perjured himself. Instead, he was the protean president of many personalities -- subdued and angry, humiliated and proud, evasive and persuasive -- at once reminding the nation why he gets into trouble and also why he so often gets out of it, balancing traits that tend to exasperate his critics with rhetorical skills that make him, amid all his troubles, a sympathetic figure to much of the public.
Clinton took some of the edge off the deceptive nature of his wordplay by presenting the context of his answers. He presented himself as the victim of a political vendetta hounded by hostile lawyers, both during his deposition in the Paula Jones case last January and again here before Kenneth W. Starr and his dogged deputies.
He went to the Jones deposition with a state of mind that her lawyers were "taking a wrecking ball to me to see if they could do some damage," Clinton explained at one point. During another exchange, turning to another violent metaphor, he said he was "determined to walk through the minefield" his enemies had set for him without violating any laws. He viewed the Jones deposition as "a gotcha game," he said, and in response decided that his goal should be "to be truthful" but "not particularly helpful."
In his deliberative answers, Clinton made it clear that he viewed the motivations of the independent counsel's office with the same measure of suspicion that he held for Jones's lawyers. He tried to turn the issue of evasiveness on its head. His careful answers -- such as claiming that he could accurately deny an affair with Monica S. Lewinsky if he was talking in the present tense, since the affair was in the past -- were nothing more than an effort to escape the equally manipulative word traps set by his legal adversaries. "I am not going to answer your trick questions!" he once declared with a tone of self-righteousness.
Whether the grand jury videotape proves to be a long-term boon to the president is still uncertain, of course, but it served at least one positive purpose on the first day: boosting morale among Clinton's harried supporters and, for perhaps the first time, clearly defining his new line of defense.
Clinton's most outspoken defender, consultant James Carville, was in Brazil yesterday and had not even seen the videotape, but had received so many reports on the president's unlikely showing that he was yapping with more effusiveness than usual, if that is possible. "I wish I'd have had this tape before," Carville said in a telephone interview. "Nothing is more effective than when I can say, 'As the president said . . .' Now I can say it. I've been looking for him to lead the defense, and it appears he's done it."
David Maraniss is the author of "First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton."
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