Will Today Bring Vindication for Media?
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 17, 1998; Page B01
After months of White House complaints about the media's hot pursuit of the Monica Lewinsky story, unnamed presidential advisers are now using the press to signal that President Clinton may acknowledge an intimate relationship with the former intern.
The strongest evidence came yesterday, in leaked accounts provided to Bob Woodward of The Washington Post and Ron Fournier of the Associated Press, following an initial trial balloon floated in Friday's New York Times. The likely reason: Whispering to reporters could cushion the public impact if Clinton actually changes his story in his grand jury testimony today.
Some senior White House officials, who have privately insisted to reporters that they believed Clinton's denials, are now feeling hurt and confused, one of them said, and have sent word to the president that he may need to explain to his loyalists how he could have looked them in the eye and denied a sexual relationship.
And the journalists, who have taken plenty of heat for their aggressive coverage of the Lewinsky mess, are already feeling a measure of vindication. As the skeptical tone of many reports and the combative tenor of White House briefings suggest, they have spent seven months questioning the president's finger-wagging denial of a sexual relationship even as a majority of Americans have proclaimed they are sick of the subject and of the media's behavior.
An I-told-you-so period is probably inevitable. In a harbinger of things to come, "Meet the Press" moderator Tim Russert yesterday played or read comments staunchly backing Clinton's denials by advisers Mike McCurry, James Carville, Ann Lewis, Paul Begala and Rahm Emanuel.
Many of the reporters and columnists have covered Clinton on issues from Gennifer Flowers, the military draft and dope-smoking to Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate and campaign fund-raising abuses, and they have long been convinced that he resorts to clever, carefully parsed denials. Most agreed with a widely cited column by The Post's David Broder, who said that "Bill Clinton has no one to blame but himself" for not having "dealt with the situation forthrightly" by saying something like: "I foolishly let myself become involved with this young woman in a way that is deeply painful to my family."
Even before the recent reports, the commentariat had embraced a new national parlor game: devising ways for Clinton to extricate himself from Grand Jury Jeopardy. The experts, analysts and pontificators have filled endless hours serving up free advice:
Clinton should forget about testifying. Clinton should show up and refuse to answer questions about sex. Clinton should plead the Fifth. Clinton should plead the Fourth. Clinton should give a mea culpa speech. Clinton should keep his lips zipped.
All this resembles nothing so much as the pregame hype before the Super Bowl, which is more or less how television is treating this spectacle, with 21 hours of special reports announced just for yesterday. It's hardly surprising that anchors are canceling their vacations or flying to Washington for the unprecedented presidential testimony.
The constant chatter reveals one of the elements that have made this such a huge media story. (All right, sex is a factor.) It's not just a factual debate over what did or didn't happen; it's a chance to argue about adultery, lying about adultery, sex in the workplace, the ethics of taping a friend, the mysterious talking points, executive privilege, the role of the Secret Service, the power of an independent prosecutor, the nature of high crimes and misdemeanors, and on and on.
In Time magazine, Lance Morrow suggested a "Baba and Bubba format" in which Clinton makes a tearful confession to Barbara Walters, his wife at his side.
On the opposite page, Margaret Carlson said Clinton should forgo a public apology: "Forget some mealy-mouthed I-caused-pain-in-my-marriage explanation. . . . Nothing will suffice short of a full Jimmy Swaggart."
In the New York Times, attorney Nathan Lewin offered Clinton a script for the grand jury: "I respectfully refuse to answer questions you are asking me, or will ask me, about my private sex life. That is none of your business. . . . It is within the zone of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment," which guards against "unreasonable searches and seizures."
On ABC's "This Week," George Stephanopoulos told his former boss to "throw himself on the mercy" of the public and to apologize to both his wife and his staff. He said the advisers' leaks were designed to "push the president toward some type of admission."
Keep a finger on the channel clicker: By tonight the experts are sure to be offering up new advice.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company