Act 3, Scene 2 By Lloyd Grove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 29, 1998; Page D01
The 6 1/2-month-old White House intern controversy has gotten so entwined in the interminable Washington gabfest that it has taken on the fustiness of ritual. Yesterday's developments -- in which the key witness, Monica Lewinsky, cut an immunity deal to testify against the Leader of the Free World -- seemed not much different.
Independent counsel Kenneth Starr, President Clinton and his alleged fling-partner Lewinsky, her double-crossing former friend Linda Tripp, White House press secretary Mike McCurry, the reporters, the grand jury and the teeming multitude of lawyers all had their familiar roles to play.
And they did so, once again, with all the ceremony of a liturgy. There were hymns and chants, vestments, pomp and, as usual, a great deal of mystery.
Shortly after 1 p.m., Lewinsky alighted from a taxi in front of lawyer Plato Cacheris's downtown office building on Connecticut Avenue. She was wearing a light blue pantsuit and an expression of impenetrable poise. No matter that she was blocked from the entrance by a gigantic, sweaty scrum of reporters, photographers and tourists on the sidewalk. Finally someone appeared to guide her safely through the throng. In due course the serious-suited Cacheris came out to read a brief statement confirming his client's agreement with Starr before retreating indoors.
At 2:41 p.m. in the jampacked White House press room, McCurry commenced his afternoon briefing. On a genuinely sad day -- the president at that very moment was preparing to eulogize the two Capitol police officers who had died trying to stop a rampaging gunman -- the press secretary arrived in somber pinstripes to fence with the White House regulars. His jaw set in a thoughtful frown, McCurry announced the president's reaction to the Lewinsky news -- "I think that he's pleased that things are working out for her" -- which in turn produced a reaction of its own: collective eye-rolling.
"What do you mean, he's pleased things are working out for her?"
"You mean the president sees this as a good development, Mike?"
"What do you mean, 'working out for her'?"
So it was off to the races. The reporters jabbed with sharp questions. McCurry dodged and deflected, or tried to confuse the issue with humor. The press jabbed some more. McCurry pushed back. Made a joke. Smiled winningly. Changed the subject. And so on.
"What are the president's thoughts about Monica Lewinsky at this point?"
"Did he send her a note, Mike, of congratulations?"
"In a news conference a few months ago, the president said he would never resign. Is that still his thinking?
At this McCurry bristled. "I don't even know why on earth the question would get posed."
"Mike, elaborate on the president's mood . . ."
"The president," McCurry replied, "is very somber today because he has been thinking about what he is about to do in a few short minutes, which is to pay tribute to two law enforcement officers who gave their lives protecting the American people."
Never mind the unwelcome injection of dignity. The regulars were undeterred. There were some typical exchanges with CBS White House correspondent Scott Pelley, who bombarded McCurry with the grim sonorities of a prosecutor:
"Mike, in the Roosevelt Room when the president said he had not had sex with Monica Lewinsky, was he telling the truth at that time?"
"I believe so, yes. . . ."
"Mike, you said that the president has told the truth. If Miss Lewinsky -- "
"I said I believe he has told the truth, correct. That's what you asked."
"Is there a difference?"
"Well, I believe he has told the truth. I don't think there's a difference."
"So you're not willing to state flatly that he has told the truth -- it's your belief?"
McCurry took refuge in philosophical terminology: "I can only report what I can ontologically know, right?"
In the end, though, the ritual was adhered to. McCurry lectured ABC's Sam Donaldson: "Sam, what is widely reported and what is the truth may or may not be the same thing. I mean, you don't know what she has said, and none of us do, and I know you all are going to have to run out and yak and yak and yak forever about this, but it's going to be based on very few facts."
"Well, we yak," Donaldson pronounced sonorously; "our print brethren write. It's our job."
"Well, I gave you something you can report. . . . It's kind of a minimalist construction, I grant you. It's better than nothing, right?"
Around 4:30 p.m. outside the federal courthouse, where photographers and technicians lounged on merrily colored beach chairs protected by umbrellas, Tripp's lawyers came outside to comment on all the comments. A typed message was duct-taped to a television van, presumably for the edification of curious tourists: "We are here for the Ken Starr grand jury. Monica is not here."
Later, McCurry, who plans to leave his job when Congress adjourns this fall, mused wearily that the Lewinsky scandal has become a way for television outlets, particularly daytime cable operations, to attract viewers. "It's the same way they kept their audiences with O.J., and everyone plays their part. It's my role to send the press away grumpy because they didn't get as much information as they wanted. . . . Starr plays the role of Ahab, but I don't really know what his deal is. The president's role is to do the job he was elected to do. And Monica's role -- well, anything I said would be misconstrued -- but she probably wants to find her way to the epilogue as quickly as possible."
Staff writers Peter Baker and Nicholas Day contributed to this report.
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