Hill May See Backlash By John Mintz and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 21, 1998; Page A1 White House officials and congressional Democrats argued yesterday that the House Judiciary Committee's release today of President Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony on the Lewinsky scandal and 2,800 pages of sexually explicit documents will generate new sympathy for Clinton because his critics are trying to humiliate him for political ends.
"People are going to wonder about the judgment of people who decided to put [out] a good deal of salacious material that was completely irrelevant to the charges leveled at the president" by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, deputy White House chief of staff John Podesta said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "They may actually end up questioning the motivation, whether this was done for partisan purposes and ultimately they may question the fairness of the process that's going on on Capitol Hill."
At the same time, Podesta and other Clinton defenders suggested the videotape would show Clinton exhibiting a range of complex emotions, from remorse to embarrassment, that are at odds with the way Starr described him in his report to Congress.
According to people familiar with its contents, the tape shows a president alternately remorseful for what he has done and resentful of prosecutors' inquiries. He explained away imprecise answers as the result of a memory damaged by the pressures of office, including the stress of the four-year Starr investigation.
At times, he expressed concern for Monica S. Lewinsky, saying that while she tended "to cling" after they broke up, she is "a good girl." And he expressed anger at the ordeal she has been put through, describing Linda R. Tripp, the onetime friend who secretly taped Lewinsky and sparked the probe, as having "betrayed her and stabbed her in the back."
The four-hour, 12-minute videotape and an accompanying transcript of Clinton's testimony are only part of the material that will be released today by the House Judiciary Committee in fulfillment of its promise to make public all of the information presented to it by Starr when he submitted his 453-page report 10 days ago. Also released will be Lewinsky's testimony before the grand jury and her interviews with Starr's investigators, along with assorted legal documents. Members of the Judiciary Committee engaged in heated debate last week on how to edit Lewinsky's testimony to remove sexual material.
But it is the video that is expected to have the most explosive impact. While much of Clinton's testimony was quoted in the Starr report, the video will provide an unprecedented view of the president under contentious questioning by Starr's prosecutors and members of the grand jury. Television networks, Internet sites and other new cyberworld conveyances are gearing up for this morning's release, and three all-news cable networks MSNBC, CNN and Fox News Channel will make television history by airing it unedited and uninterrupted as soon as it becomes available.
ABC, CBS and NBC will all have hour-long evening news shows tonight, the first time the broadcasts have been extended since the Persian Gulf War.
Clinton will not be in Washington when the tape is finally played. Yesterday evening, Clinton flew to New York, where he met with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi last night and will address the United Nations General Assembly today.
Before leaving, he attended an early-morning fund-raiser for Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.), and then attended services at Foundry United Methodist Church near the White House with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. The church's pastor, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, is one of three ministers the White House says Clinton has selected to give him "pastoral care" in the weeks ahead.
Yesterday, in his sermon, Wogaman drew from Matthew 7:1, which begins, "Judge not, lest ye be judged," and from Psalm 137, which describes the Hebrew people during the capture of Jerusalem, and he warned that destroying one thing in civil life inevitably destroys others until "what is destroyed is the nation."
Much of the conversation on yesterday's talk shows focused on what to expect on the tape.
"I think they'll see a painful admission that he had an inappropriate, intimate relationship," Podesta said. "He had sexual contact with Miss Lewinsky, and I think that will be painful to watch, but I think there might be a surprising reaction to that."
Podesta also tried to prepare the public for flashes of presidential anger. "You can understand this," Podesta said, "if you sat there for four and a half hours and the most intimate details of your sexual life were being pressed on."
For their part, some Republicans played down suggestions that the release of the videotape or the other documents would be the key moment leading the public to abandon the president.
"It's not going to be a knockout blow, in my opinion," said Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Judiciary Committee member who has watched the tape, on "Meet the Press." "If you like the president, there will be times when you will feel sympathy for him. If you think he's a guy you don't like, there are going to be things that you'll seize upon."
"There are points in time when the president looks into the camera and makes a pretty compelling acquitting of himself about how he feels about what Ken Starr has done to him, to his family, to his friends, and how he thought the Paula Jones case was politically motivated, and I think he's very sincere. You can tell this has hurt the guy. There's times when he's dancing on the head of a pin to try to describe what sexual relations are, and it gets to be humorous."
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said on "Meet the Press" that Clinton should quickly reach agreement with congressional leaders that he will appear before the Judiciary Committee and explain himself.
"I believe the president would be well served to explain exactly what he did, exactly what he was thinking do it to the Judiciary Committee and let's vote and let's move on one way or the other," said Kerry, who said he did not clear his proposal with the White House beforehand. "The nation is being ill-served by this political water torture that's taking place in a highly calculated, highly partisan way."
"This water torture has been inflicted by the president," Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.) responded. "The president refused to tell the truth to the American people for eight months and then went before the grand jury and refused to answer questions before the grand jury ... ‚. I believe the kind of damage he has inflicted on the people of America is so substantial that he should resign."
Clinton's testimony took place Aug. 17 in the historic ground-floor Map Room of the White House, while grand jurors watched at the courthouse through a closed-circuit television hookup and a video machine recorded the proceedings. On a few occasions, prosecutors said they had questions that had been relayed by telephone from grand jurors. The president's personal attorney, David E. Kendall, objected a few times, particularly regarding questions about attorney-client privilege and once to a hypothetical question about inserting an object sexually.
Near the beginning of the session, Clinton read a paragraph statement acknowledging a relationship with Lewinsky that included "inappropriate intimate contact" and "inappropriate sexual banter." But he announced that he would not answer any more specific questions about their encounters "because of privacy considerations affecting my family, myself and others, and in an effort to preserve the dignity of the office I hold."
Over the course of the interrogation, Starr's prosecutors asked graphic questions about what he and Lewinsky did, including whether he ever used a cigar as a "sexual aid," but Clinton repeatedly referred back to that opening statement.
Much of the rest of the time was taken jousting over the meaning of "sexual relations," as used during his Jan. 17 deposition in the Paula Jones case when he denied having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky and denying that he tried to obstruct justice by helping her find a job, swear out a false affidavit and hide subpoenaed gifts he had given her.
While denying he committed perjury, Clinton acknowledged that he was not forthcoming during the Jones deposition. "My goal was to be truthful but not helpful," he said, according to a lawyer familiar with the grand jury session. "I deplored the work of the Jones lawyers. They were funded by my political enemies."
Clinton testified he was not trying to influence Lewinsky's testimony by helping her find a job or giving her presents. "She's a good girl," he said, adding, "I didn't think it was wrong to be helping her."
At one point, a prosecutor challenged Clinton, saying that his friend, Vernon E. Jordan Jr., had told them that Clinton had the best memory of any politician.
"I've had a good memory," Clinton responded, "but in the last six years, there's been a lot of pressure. I don't have a good memory now. The memory loss has been increased by the pressure of your four-year investigation."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company