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Ginsburg/AP
William H. Ginsburg says he felt "overwhelmed" by the media when allegations first arose about a sexual relationship between his client, Monica S. Lewinsky, and President Clinton. (AP File Photo)

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Ginsburg's Role Shrinks As Starr Nears Decision

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 24, 1998; Page A08

Not so long ago, it was hard to turn on television without coming across the avuncular visage of William H. Ginsburg. Here he was chatting with Tim Russert about how hard things had been for his world-famous client. There he was telling Barbara Walters that President Clinton and Monica S. Lewinsky were just "colleagues."

But the all-Ginsburg, all-the-time show has been canceled. Following widespread criticism that his ubiquitous -- and sometimes contradictory -- public pronouncements were hurting rather than helping his client, the Lewinsky camp has pulled the plug.

Instead, the family has hired a professional public relations consultant schooled in Washington politics to handle the voluminous media inquiries that Ginsburg once fielded single-handedly. And according to several people close to the case, the Lewinsky clan appears to be looking to bolster its legal team with another attorney more experienced in high-profile criminal cases than the medical malpractice lawyer from Los Angeles.

The shrinking public role for Ginsburg dramatically alters the aesthetics of the investigation, if not the legal strategies, as independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr nears a decision on whether to seek indictment of the former White House intern for perjury or instead force her to testify before a grand jury under a grant of limited immunity. In a case populated by intriguing figures, few have been as colorful or omnipresent as Ginsburg as he ricocheted across the national airwaves and squired Lewinsky to Larry King book parties or dinner at Morton's or the Cosmos Club.

In an interview last week, arranged only after calls were routed through the new family spokeswoman, Judy Smith, Ginsburg acknowledged that he was unprepared for his explosive introduction to the media-saturated world of Washington scandal, although he declined to second-guess whether his performances had been useful for his client's case.

"The press overwhelmed me," he said. "I'm not going to tell you I was good at it or I was bad at it, but I will tell you it was overwhelming. . . . It became apparent to me that I needed media help."

Ginsburg, a friend of Bernard Lewinsky since before his daughter Monica was born 24 years ago, denied any friction with the family and warned against reading too much into his lower profile. "There was never anything dramatic about Judy's entry," he said. "I suppose given the amount of exposure I had before Judy came on board, it would raise questions -- what's happened to Ginsburg? Well, the answer is -- nothing's happened to Ginsburg."

Loquacious Lawyer: The Collected Statements of William H. Ginsburg

On his client, Monica Lewinsky:

"There are people who talk a lot and as part of the scenario, peccadilloes, they may tell fibs, lies, exaggerations, oversell."

-- Jan. 30

"All 24-year-olds and all 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds tend to embellish."

-- Feb. 1

On his friendship with her family:

"I kissed that girl's inner thighs when she was six days old -- I said, 'Look at those little poulkes.'"

-- March 2

On why he set up a Vanity Fair magazine photo shoot for Lewinsky:

"You have to realize that a 24-year-old girl who's imprisoned, her ego, her libido, her mind imprisoned by Ken Starr and the press ... begins to feel that her self-worth is diminishing."

-- April 30

On President Clinton:

"If the president of the United States did this -- and I'm not saying that he did -- with this young lady, I think he's a misogynist."

-- Jan. 20

"Clinton is very positive toward Israel and the Jews, and Monica and I are Jews. ... I don't want the president to resign. Who knows who will come after Clinton and how he will deal with Israel?"

-- Jan. 27

"It'll pass. The president will remain in office. He'll do a good job ... and I think everybody's going to be fine."

-- Feb. 1

If reports of Clinton's romantic involvements are true, "this president has a gender problem."

-- April 2

Since the beginning, in January, Ginsburg has been working with Washington criminal defense attorney Nathaniel H. Speights, who unlike his loquacious teammate generally has shied away from media attention. Both have said they are unaware of any plans to bring in another attorney, although Ginsburg signaled he would be open to the idea of help if he and the family decide it would be fruitful.

Ginsburg has inspired so much criticism from other lawyers that much of the legal community has been predicting for months that he would be backbenched eventually.

"It's not going to solve the problem," said Alan M. Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor and one of Ginsburg's most unrelenting critics. "The problem is going to continue if any lawyer that has any association with Ginsburg remains in the case, because what is needed by Lewinsky is a lawyer who is prepared to charge Ginsburg with ineffective assistance of counsel."

Ginsburg was brought into the case by Bernard Lewinsky on the night in January that his daughter was first confronted by FBI agents working for Starr. A civil attorney from California, Ginsburg had contentious negotiations with Starr over the following weeks seeking an immunity deal for Monica Lewinsky, only to have talks break down in a dispute over whether they had reached a binding agreement. Ginsburg went to court insisting they had, only to be rejected by a judge, who ruled he was wrong. An appeals court has just refused even to consider the matter in a dismissive two-page order.

Even as he was talking, and later fighting, with Starr, Ginsburg was showing up on talk shows across the dial, at least four times on Larry King's show and once accomplishing the unheard-of feat of appearing on all five major network interview shows on a single Sunday. A computer search found 29 guest appearances on major talk shows, which does not count the innumerable interviews he gave for daily news programs.

Ginsburg said he had to get his client's case before the public, but he stirred confusion along the way with statements that mystified other lawyers. On some occasions, he seemed to leave open the idea that Lewinsky and Clinton did have an affair, saying she stood by her previous sworn denial "at this time." Behind the scenes, according to sources, he had given Starr a proffer, or a written statement detailing what she would testify if given immunity, that acknowledged a sexual relationship.

Yet he also described his own client as an immature young woman given to fantasizing, someone who "may tell fibs, lies, exaggerations." And as time wore on, he no longer left open the door to the possibility that there was an affair, saying flatly, "There was never a sexual relationship," despite the proffer.

Such comments heartened Clinton defense attorneys, who considered them powerful ammunition for impeaching Lewinsky's credibility on the witness stand if she ever does testify that she engaged in sex with the president, contrary to Clinton's denial under oath.

Questions about Ginsburg's statements came to a new peak last month when Chief U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson dismissed Ginsburg's immunity motion. Because it was under seal, it remained secret for a week before becoming public. All the while, Ginsburg, who had been upbraided by Johnson for discussing the case so much, insisted to reporters that the judge had not ruled, even though she had.

The day after every major national news organization reported that Johnson had, in fact, ruled, Ginsburg continued to deny it, attributing those reports to Starr's office. Yet R. Peter Straus, the fiance of Lewinsky's mother, Marcia Lewis, had confirmed the existence of the ruling to The Washington Post. Asked about that, Ginsburg denied that Straus had done so. "You misquoted Peter," Ginsburg insisted, saying he had just spoken with Straus about the matter. "He never said that to anybody."

When Straus was subsequently contacted and asked if he had been misquoted, he said no and seemed stunned that Ginsburg would claim he had been. "Bill Ginsburg said that?" Straus asked, incredulous.

A week or so after that episode, Smith was hired. With a law degree of her own, Smith offered the family a wealth of experience in high-profile political cases, having served as a spokeswoman for independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh during the Iran-contra probe, for federal prosecutor Jay B. Stephens during the Marion Barry drug trial and eventually for the White House under President George Bush. Now media calls to Ginsburg and others in the Lewinsky camp get referred to Smith.

In an interview Friday, Straus would not say whether that incident contributed to the decision to hire Smith, saying he did not remember precisely "what the timing" was. But he added, "I'm really, really glad for that and other reasons that Judy Smith's aboard."

Ginsburg, too, said he was "delighted" that Smith was hired and happy to be concentrating more on legal matters. While he said he has standing offers from several talk shows and figures he will make future, though less frequent, appearances, Ginsburg said he was equally glad to be off the media circuit for now.

"I don't miss it at all," he said. "My career for 32 years has been law and I'm coming back to the law after this case is over without any cameras at all."


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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