A President's Isolation
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 1999; Page A1 This is the first of three excerpts from "Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate." Copyright © 1999 by Bob Woodward, Simon & Schuster.
Robert S. Bennett, leaning close to his client in the private study off the Oval Office, announced his suspicion in an aggressive baritone. "Mr. President," he said, "I find your explanation about one of the women frankly unbelievable."
"This is what impeachment is made of," said Bennett, President Clinton's lawyer in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case. "Your political enemies will eat you alive if there's anything in that deposition that isn't truthful."
There can be no fudging or finagling, Bennett said. It would be better to have to deal with the first lady if there is a problem. "If . . ." Bennett said, stopping for effect, making it clear there could be no evasion. He shook his head, almost feeling electricity in the air. "You are dead. You are dead!"
"I hear you," the president said.
Every case, every witness, every client has a point of greatest vulnerability -- an Achilles' heel. Locating it is a lawyer's, and ultimately the client's, insurance policy.
It was Jan. 16, 1998, the day before Clinton was to give his deposition in the Jones case, and Bennett believed he had located the real problem Clinton faced the next day. It was not Kathleen Willey, the former White House volunteer who claimed Clinton groped her in 1993, because that had never been a relationship. It was not Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern. It was totally improbable that the president had taken up with a young woman, age 23 or 24, who apparently brought pizza and mail to the Oval Office.
No, Bennett believed, he had smoked out the real liability -- Marilyn Jo Jenkins, a beautiful marketing executive whom Clinton had known for more than a decade. Jenkins was a longtime employee of the Arkansas Power and Light Co. Her name had been linked to Clinton in published reports, but only in vague references.
She had met with Clinton in his basement office in the Arkansas governor's mansion four times in the less than three months between his election in 1992 and his inauguration in 1993. Three of the meetings took place about 5:15 a.m. or 5:30 a.m. Phone records showed that from 1989 to 1991 Clinton had placed 59 calls to Jenkins's home or office. Arkansas state trooper Danny Ferguson had brought gifts from Clinton to Jenkins.
Clinton had denied to Bennett that he had a sexual relationship with Jenkins. Bennett was not buying it. He noticed that Clinton reacted differently when Jenkins's name came up. The president paused in a forlorn and wistful way. Bennett couldn't quite put his finger on it, but Clinton's manner seemed to be a definite tip-off.
Bennett reminded the president that the judge would make a final ruling the next day at the deposition about the questions relating to women. Supposedly, Clinton was going to be asked only about women who had been state or federal employees, and Jenkins had never worked for either government.
He was going to object, but the judge could rule either way, Bennett said. It probably was a 50-50 shot whether questions would be allowed about Jenkins. The president had to be ready to answer, Bennett said, inviting Clinton to share with his lawyers his possible responses.
Afterward, Bennett met alone with Clinton's close confidant Bruce Lindsey.
"He needed that," Lindsey said.
During his years in the White House, Clinton had become increasingly isolated. He would not even confide in his own lawyers.
Four years earlier, after Jones had filed her suit, Bennett had held a series of strategy meetings with the president. "Most of my cases, I can get my clients out from under the underlying conduct," he told Clinton at one session. "What happens is they flunk the investigation. They do things during the investigative phase to cause the trouble." So Clinton had to be careful. "Don't do your own investigation. Don't contact witnesses. Don't do anything. If you have a bright idea, pass it on to me."
Eventually Bennett sought the president's confidence about his past. "My handling of this and dealing with it is going to be only as good as the information I get," he told Clinton.
One day, Clinton and Bennett went for a stroll on the White House grounds. Both had cigars. Bennett lit his. Clinton did not. Bennett took the matter a step further. Rumors persisted in Washington connecting Clinton sexually with various women. For all Bennett knew, they were total garbage.
Perhaps it was the intimacy of the walk, the perfectly tended White House grounds or the male party and communion suggested by the cigars.
"If you're caught . . . in the White House," Bennett said, "I'm not good enough to help you."
"This is a prison," Clinton responded. "I purposefully have no drapes on the windows." As for women, "I'm retired," the president declared, repeating himself emphatically. "I'm retired."
Confronting the Client
In January 1998, as Bennett prepared for Clinton's sworn deposition in the Jones case, he was still pressing his client on that same question. Just a few days before the deposition, Bennett came back from a closed session with Judge Susan Webber Wright concerned that he did not have enough information about the president's relationship with Lewinsky. One of the Jones lawyers had told him, "Our information is that she had an affair with the president," and so he returned to Washington and the White House to ask more questions.
Why were they asking about Lewinsky? Bennett asked the president and Lindsey. What might be the basis for alleging that Lewinsky had an affair with you? Has she ever been to the Oval Office?
Clinton said Lewinsky had brought a pizza to the Oval Office during the government shutdown. She delivered mail. No problem, he said. Absolutely nothing, no difficulty.
Were there any other Oval Office visits by Lewinsky?
"Betty Currie had invited her church group to look at the Christmas decorations," Clinton said, referring to his personal secretary, "and Monica tagged along and maybe she poked her head in." Nothing more.
Is there anything I'm not asking about her? Bennett asked.
Clinton said no.
Could there be a rumor or a part of this story we don't understand? Some misunderstanding? Bennett wanted to see if he could trace the origin of the information the Jones lawyers claimed they had about an affair with Lewinsky. What haven't I asked?
Clinton was blank.
Bennett figured that short of hitting the president with a chair, he had posed the hardest questions. They reviewed the rest of the list.
"After this case is over," Bennett joked, "your reputation as a womanizer may go down the drain."
By the morning of Jan. 17, Bennett felt well prepared. He was convinced they were dealing with a past buried in Arkansas.
Bennett arrived early at the White House. He approached Lindsey about what the president might say about Marilyn Jo Jenkins.
"Has he worked it out?" Bennett asked.
"Yeah," Lindsey said, providing no details or information on a strategy.
Soon the president and Bennett were together before the deposition began.
"I appreciate what you said yesterday," the president said, "and I've worked it out."
At the deposition, the Jones lawyers spent the morning asking primarily about Lewinsky. After lunch, they asked the president about his relationship with Jenkins, but the judge ruled that they could not ask further questions about her -- a victory for Clinton.
"How do you think it went?" the president asked after the deposition.
"Great," Bennett said. He felt they hadn't laid a glove on him. Only about 10 percent of the questions had been about Jones.
The atmosphere was almost one of celebrating, just short of breaking out the champagne.
'That Guy's on a Mission to Get Me!'
Five days later, the news broke that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr had launched a massive investigation into Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky. For months, the president issued passionate public denials and tried to maintain an air of normalcy. On May 25, Memorial Day, the president played golf and that night attended a Washington Capitals playoff hockey game with Vice President Gore.
Early in the game, Clinton went to the back area of owner Abe Pollin's luxury suite. He walked up to Jack Quinn, his former counsel, and Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo. The subject of what Clinton called his "troubles" finally came up.
"Goddamn it!" the president said. He said he knew he was paying a price for the Lewinsky investigation. Then Clinton launched into a three-minute tirade against the Jones lawsuit and Starr.
"It's a hokey, trumped-up, baseless lawsuit," he said. All his problems stemmed from that lawsuit, he said.
Starr had set a perjury trap for him, he said, seething. The attempt to question Arkansas state troopers the previous year about his sex life was directly connected to the conspiracy against him.
"What this guy is doing is discovery for the Paula Jones case. That thing they were doing last year was about discovery." Starr and the Jones attorneys were working hand in glove. The president said he was fed up, had had it up to here, putting his hand up to his eyes. "That guy's on a mission to get me!"
During the second intermission, Clinton, smiling, told a TV interviewer, "I'm having the time of my life. I love this. It's fascinating."
The Darkest and Loneliest Period
Clinton finally agreed to testify before Starr's grand jury on Aug. 17. He acknowledged an "inappropriate intimate relationship" with Lewinsky but insisted he had not perjured himself. That evening he gave a brief televised address in which he apologized but also lashed out at Starr and insisted that he had a right to a private life.
The next day, he and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton left for a Martha's Vineyard vacation with daughter Chelsea.
It was one of the darkest and loneliest periods of his presidency. He went for a five-mile walk on the beach, accompanied only by his dog, Buddy.
One of the few people the president spoke with regularly was Terry McAuliffe, the chief fund-raiser for the Democrats. McAuliffe, 41, a boyish, outgoing entrepreneur, was Clinton's primary money man. The first cheerleader, McAuliffe tried to keep Clinton in a fighting mood. "I'm with you," he said in a phone conversation. "People support you, love you, sir. We're going to get through this."
"I [screwed] it up," the president said. "I was mad. You won't believe the questions they asked me. . . . A witch hunt." Despondent, brooding, Clinton referred to reports that he was in a state of denial. "Goddamn it, I'm not in denial. I got my ass kicked. There's no denial here."
'I'll Never Be the Same'
Jack Quinn, the former White House counsel, was keeping in close touch with Vice President Gore from his 12th-floor Washington office at the law firm of Arnold & Porter. Gore had expressed a welter of feelings about the Lewinsky scandal. On one hand it conceivably could elevate him to the presidency; on the other it could inflict a deep political wound on him as Clinton's number two.
Gore said he felt his honor was at stake, and he had to remain loyal. Clinton had given him unprecedented authority as vice president and the two had become friends. He could not back away from the president or be seen as backing away, he said.
He made it clear that he did not understand the sexual relationship with Lewinsky at all. He was baffled that Clinton would take the risk. His wife, Tipper, however, was unforgiving of Clinton, and Gore said he kept hearing about it at home. Overall, Gore seemed determined to remain stoic. "I'm powerless over this situation," he told Quinn, "and I can't try to deal with what I have no control over."
Just after noon on Sept. 11, the House voted 363 to 63 to release the Starr report and it was posted on the Internet. Millions of Americans clicked on to read the explicit details.
White House press secretary Michael McCurry could not believe Clinton had acted so recklessly. All along, McCurry expected the relationship had been dangerous or provocative. The leaks had been one thing, but the report documented oral sex in the hallway pantry off the Oval Office many times. It was beyond his imagination. McCurry knew the place well. He walked in to heat his coffee in the microwave three or four times a day, so he knew where to click the button and open the door. He didn't want an apology from the president because he wasn't ready to accept one.
In conversations with others on the staff, McCurry found basically the same attitude. Among the senior political advisers there was a collective primal scream of rage. They told the lawyers to go do the Sunday television talk shows to defend the president. "We're not going out," McCurry announced.
Among Senate Democrats, the anger was expressed another way. Within days, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota counted as many as seven Democrats who were running around with speeches or statements in various stages of completion calling for Clinton to resign for the good of the party.
One senator seemed to have a speech in his pocket and was itching to read it on the Senate floor. Others had just expressed a strong personal view. The list of possible defections included Sens. Robert Byrd, the former Democratic leader and senior eminence from West Virginia, Bob Graham of Florida, Dianne Feinstein of California, Harry Reid of Nevada, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, Fritz Hollings of South Carolina and Joseph R. Biden of Delaware.
Daschle urged them to be patient. But it was a volatile situation. One forceful public request for the president's voluntary resignation by a Democratic senator could start a panic.
Daschle invited Erskine Bowles, Clinton's chief of staff, and John Podesta, the deputy chief of staff, to the Tuesday, Sept. 15 Senate Democratic caucus lunch. He wanted them to hear the party distress for themselves. It would be a rude awakening to see firsthand the anger at the president from those in his own party.
Biden said their party would be better off in the coming elections if Clinton resigned. He was not necessarily advocating resignation, he said, but making clear it was his preference. Nonetheless, he said he was sure that Clinton never would quit anyway.
"He lied to me too," Bowles acknowledged, offering a meager defense. Many of the Democratic senators were furious that in private conversations Clinton was still lashing out at Starr. Few had heard any expression of genuine remorse from the president.
Another important factor for a number of the male Democratic senators was the reaction of their wives. Clinton's behavior was a nightmare for the wife of a politician, and the scorn, ridicule and dread some of the wives expressed to their husbands became a constant theme at home. The intensity and depth of negative feelings toward Clinton were so great that the senators would repeat them only to their closest friends or off the record.
In all, it looked like maybe as many as half of the 45 Democratic senators privately wanted or would prefer that Clinton resign. If a dozen or more favored resignation, the situation could reach critical mass -- 55 Republican senators plus 12 Democrats was enough to remove Clinton from office in an impeachment trial.
Back at the White House, Podesta reported, "There isn't much holding them together. There could be a stampede."
Bowles had reached the point of no return. "I just want you to know that I'm not going up and doing any more defense of the president on the Hill," he told McCurry. Never again. "I can't do what I did this week. I also want you to leak it out somewhere that I'm going to be leaving when Congress leaves."
Daschle told several Senate Democrats that it might reach a point where it would be best for everyone if Clinton resigned. We're not there yet, he said, repeating his mantra, "Be patient, hold your fire."
The Senate Democrats held. Over in the House, the Judiciary Committee approved four impeachment articles against Clinton and the floor debate was scheduled to begin. Early that morning, Dec. 16, though, the president was focusing on a different crisis: Saddam Hussein was refusing to comply with United Nations inspectors. The U.S. was threatening air raids to begin the same day.
In the White House Situation Room, Defense Secretary William Cohen was meeting at 7 a.m. with the principals of Clinton's national security team. All the advisers recommended that the president give full approval for the attack to begin about 5 p.m. that day, the eve of the impeachment debate.
"A failure to take action now will undercut our credibility," Cohen told Clinton. "Our word is at stake. If we don't carry it out, we're going to be tested in the future." Weakness would be met by more of Saddam Hussein's defiance. "If you don't act here, the next argument will be that you're paralyzed," he said.
Cohen didn't say who might make the argument, only that it would be made. Impeachment had been interjected -- and not subtly -- into the decision-making process. Cohen was pressuring the president on what he was convinced was a vital national interest.
"I can't consider anything else," Clinton said. "I have no choice."
He asked the members of the National Security Council if they would make the same recommendation if there were no impeachment pending.
All said they would.
The president seemed to take comfort in that. When he had made private phone calls seeking advice, one of the former presidents had told him, "Bill, either put up or shut up."
About 7:30 a.m., the president directed Cohen to sign the order so the first missiles and bombs would strike Iraq in a little more than eight hours. The airstrikes on Iraq caused the opening of the impeachment debate to be postponed by a single day.
Two days later, Dec. 18, the House began its floor debate. "Goddamn, [obscenity] it!" Clinton told one friend that night. He said no one could conceivably understand how he was suffering because no one had ever been subjected to such a public evisceration.
"I'm dying a thousand cuts. It's like someone kicked me in the stomach. I've had a knot in my stomach for months!" He was in a rage. No person, no human being, no public figure, no politician, no president ever had such an investigation into his personal life, Clinton said. "No one has raw grand jury material put on the street for everyone to read, including his family." The Starr report -- which Chelsea had read on the Internet -- was an ugly counterpoint to whatever he did.
The day before the Senate was going to vote on his removal from office, Clinton was convinced he would be acquitted with no censure and no fine. "I'll survive, but it will never be the same," the president said to a friend. He meant his family, the presidency -- his life. Acquittal would be a hollow victory. He wondered if independent counsel Starr would keep going. He would have another 700 days as president, but it would be tough. "If there is one victory," he added, "it will be a lot."
"You owe the country a few words," his friend suggested later in the conversation.
"They'll kill me," Clinton said, meaning the critics, the press, the enemies.
"No," the friend said, "you'll be talking to your friends, not your enemies."
"I have to take the heat," Clinton replied. Nothing was resolved. His family situation was unsettled, his legal difficulties uncertain. He was a chastened man.
They discussed the need for him to relax, to play golf.
The president said he had lots of advice strongly suggesting he not play golf.
"Where are you getting your relief?" the friend asked, recommending a golf outing. "Who can you spill your guts to? Who can you cry with?"
Clinton didn't answer.
Researcher Jeff Glasser contributed to this report.