Old Friends Rushed to the Rescue
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 3, 1998; Page A23
As they had been in past crises, Dick Morris, the fallen-from-grace pollster, and Harry Thomason, the Hollywood producer, were among the first at President Clinton's side when the Monica S. Lewinsky story exploded on Jan. 21.
Morris, by telephone, and Thomason, literally holed up in the third floor of the White House, had the same piece of advice: Skip the legal mumbo jumbo and get the truth out fast.
In grand jury testimony released yesterday, the accounts by Morris and Thomason offer a snapshot of a president with few allies and little room to maneuver.
"There was really this feeling of having screwed it up," Morris recalled on his first conversations with Clinton late on the night of Jan. 21, "and there was this tremendously heartfelt remorse and the shame that came through in the conversation."
Morris said he had plenty of reasons to believe the allegations were true most notably Clinton's awkward references to "slipping up." Thomason never challenged the president's denials.
But the two men both skilled in the art of image-making worried that the scandal would become a public relations disaster if Clinton did not take his case quickly and forthrightly to the American people.
"You may have to play this outside the foul lines," Morris said he told Clinton less than 24 hours after the first reports surfaced. Go "over Starr's head and go to the public and ask them for forgiveness, tell them what you did and ask them for forgiveness."
Thomason flew from Los Angeles to Washington almost immediately, watching Clinton's less-than-hearty denial on PBS's "News Hour with Jim Lehrer."
"I told the president that I thought his response wasn't as strong as it could have been," Thomason testified, recounting a walk he took with Clinton and his dog Buddy on the grounds of the White House after midnight on Jan. 23. "I thought he needed to explain it so there was no doubt in anybody's mind."
In the many and varied denials Clinton offered during his seven-month cover-up, only Morris received even the slightest hint that there had been an improper relationship with the former intern.
"You know, ever since the election, I've tried to shut myself down. I've tried to shut my body down, sexually, I mean," Morris said Clinton told him. "But sometimes I slipped up, and with this girl I just slipped up."
At later points in a handful of calls that transpired in the first few days of the crisis, Clinton refined his explanation.
As Morris recalled, Clinton said: "In all the conversations, I've made clear to you that these charges aren't true, haven't I?"
But Morris, who was dropped from the Clinton reelection team after published reports that he had an affair with a prostitute, was initially puzzled by the remark.
"I didn't understand how it could be a sexual relationship and then not," Morris told jurors. But later, as more news reports surfaced, he realized Clinton "may not have considered oral sex to be sexual relations."
Thomason remained at the White House for 34 days, though he said he could recall little of that period beyond his initial conversation with Clinton.
Morris produced one overnight poll, showing trouble ahead: Although the public appeared willing to forgive infidelity, it did not condone perjury or obstruction of justice.
Then Morris told Clinton: " 'They're just not ready for it,' meaning the voters."
And Clinton replied: "Well, we just have to win then."
Q: Tell us what your conversation was . .
Morris: He got on the phone. . . . and he said, "Oh God. This is just awful . . . " Then he said, "I didn't do what they said I did, but I did something, I mean, with this girl . . . " And then he said, "I may have done enough so that I don't know if I can prove my innocence. . . . " He said, "There may be gifts, I gave her gifts, but only after she gave them to me. And there may be messages on her phone answering machine. . . . You know ever since the election, I have tried to shut myself down. I've tried to shut my body down, sexually, I mean. But sometimes I slipped up, and with this girl I just slipped up."
Then we got into the forgiveness issue. And I said, the one thing you've got to avoid is getting trapped like Nixon into a rigid posture of denial because that gives you no flexibility, no room to maneuver and you get stuck. And presidents only get killed when they get stuck. But, on the other hand, if you play this outside the foul lines, and you really let it out, people are going to cut you slack on it.
He then said, "You think so . . . ?"
And I said, why don't we poll it?
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