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Video Views of President's Private Life

White House reporter, AP A reporter at the White House watches Monica Lewinsky's videotaped depositon Saturday. (AP)

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  • By David Von Drehle
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, February 7, 1999; Page A11

    It was the last day to present evidence in the impeachment trial of President Clinton. Who could imagine that, after four weeks of the trial, after more than a year of this scandal, there would be anything new to say?

    Yet, though there were no explosive new revelations, something striking did begin to sink in during a day spent sampling from videotaped testimony by Monica S. Lewinsky, Vernon E. Jordan Jr. and Sidney Blumenthal. The gravity of a constitutional struggle, and the frenzy of a stupendous scandal, fell away briefly and watchers saw something true but usually neglected: that presidents are only human.

    None of the stories was new, but each came to life with fresh power as they were told by the characters themselves, via fancy new flat-screen monitors on the Senate floor.

    Each witness offered a slightly different glimpse of the man behind the mask of power. There was the view of a peer the beautiful, immaculate, spellbinding and supremely confident Washington fixture Vernon Jordan, who told the story of visiting the White House one night just before Christmas in 1997.

    He drove right up to the gate and left his car. On the main floor, the White House twinkled and glimmered with seasonal cheer. Guests laughed and gossiped and networked. Jordan strode past all that, seeking the White House usher who informed him that the president was upstairs in the residence. Whereupon Jordan went right up.

    He didn't say whether he has a special pin or whether the Secret Service agents simply know him. Likely the latter. Americans who tuned in to the Saturday proceedings got a good sense of the swath Jordan cuts through Washington society: the rich shirt with snow-white collar, the hint of a pocket-square that matches his sumptuous tie, the booming voice, the sense that even at his most serious, he can barely suppress a grin.

    In the residence, Jordan confronted the president with a rather startling candor: "I went up and I raised with him the whole question of Monica Lewinsky and asked him directly if he had had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, and the president said, 'No, never.'"

    It was a brief conversation, but Jordan apparently managed to convey the sense that the president had a time bomb ticking. He mentioned that Lewinsky was very emotional and that she was harboring hopes that Clinton would leave his wife for her.

    Did he feel strange saying such things to the president of the United States?

    Jordan wasn't thinking of him that way. "I'm asking the question of my friend who happens to be the president of the United States," he answered.

    There was the view of a loyal staff member Sidney Blumenthal, another of the truly vivid figures of permanent Washington. Effortlessly smart and eager to tell you about it, good-looking in a "Brideshead Revisited" sort of way, soft-spoken yet always spoiling for a political knife fight, he was pulled into the White House to bolster the ranks of stiff-spined true believers.

    His story began with the first lady. The scandal of the president and the intern had become public that morning. The White House was frantic. Hillary Rodham Clinton called Blumenthal to explain her view of the matter, which was that her husband was being attacked for political reasons because he likes to "minister to troubled people."

    Armed with this analysis, Blumenthal visited the president. In the Oval Office, he passed along Hillary Clinton's thoughts.

    Then Clinton began speaking rapidly, delivering his by-now familiar account. That Lewinsky had come on to him, threatened him, blackmailed him but that he had resisted her advances because he didn't want to hurt anybody. "He was, uh, very upset," Blumenthal reported. "I thought he was a man in anguish."

    Blumenthal believed Clinton. So much so that he was surprised when Clinton reversed field to recount a phone call from another adviser, Dick Morris. Morris had floated the idea of a televised mea culpa.

    "That's one of the stupidest ideas I ever heard," Blumenthal said he told the president. "If you haven't done anything wrong, why would you do that?"

    The main thing, Blumenthal felt, was to rein in the boss's generosity, which he worried might have become a bit reckless. More than once that day, Blumenthal advised the president to "stop trying to help troubled people personally . . . they can get you in a lot of messes." And, "you can't be near anybody who is even remotely crazy. You're president."

    Monica Lewinsky did not appear crazy up there on the Senate's video screens. Though her voice has been caught forever nattering disastrously by phone into Linda R. Tripp's tape recorder, and her face has been seen countless times exiting this car and entering that building, here was America's first real chance to size her up.

    She was poised and lawyerly after some two dozen official interrogations. The answer to one question, she said without hesitation, "is threefold." She wore a conservative, dark suit and a strand of pearls and was hard to square with the notorious intern with a thong in her heart.

    Lewinsky told about a visit she had paid to Vernon Jordan. She was there for help finding a job, and she wanted to give Jordan a hint, a sense, that she might be closer to the president than the average intern. As she recalled it, she found her opening when Jordan "said something about me being a friend of the president."

    "I said something about seeing him more as a man than as a president," Lewinsky testified, "and I treated him accordingly. . . . I expressed that sometimes I had frustrations with him."

    Year by year, decade by decade, Americans learn more and more about the private lives of presidents. From the relentless biographers to the tell-all memoirs to the you-are-there record of the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon tapes. But this testimony from the pal, the staff member, the paramour so matter-of-fact, so human, booming through the Senate chamber and all around the world, still packed a bracing wallop.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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