By John F. Harris
It was a place where President Clinton's days could be interrupted by anxious telephone calls with his attorneys and aides whenever rumors about sexual indiscretions threatened to find their way into print.
And it was a place where some aides considered it their duty to protect Clinton from himself -- ignoring his instructions if needed -- and the most senior staff members were lied to in face-to-face conversations with the president.
This is the portrait of White House dysfunction presented in the independent counsel's report last week on the relationship between Clinton and Monica S. Lewinsky. As Kenneth W. Starr and his team tell the story, the White House was a workplace where daily life for many people -- senior aides and secretaries alike -- was colored by the ever-lurking possibility that a sexual scandal might be set to explode.
A measure of chaos brewing just below the surface is not a new story in this White House. Clinton stumbled in the opening steps of his first term, in part due to what seemed to be a pervasive pattern of loose procedures, disorganized staff and wandering presidential attention. But eventually a succession of tough-minded chiefs of staff, first Leon E. Panetta and now Erskine B. Bowles, had seemed to impose order.
What Starr's report suggests powerfully, however, is that Clinton himself is at the root of the disorder. He arranged the weekend meetings and late-night phone calls with Lewinsky. Following his own counsel, he crafted the strategy of concealment and denial that put him in the perilous place he is today.
Even before the Lewinsky scandal erupted, the report describes a president whose authority within his own White House had been subtly but unmistakably compromised by his indiscretions and the need for keeping them secret.
Clinton held what was ostensibly the most powerful job on the planet. But the president, according to the Starr report, was reduced to sending secretary Betty Currie on furtive missions to sneak Lewinsky into the Oval Office using routes that would escape the disapproving gaze of Stephen Goodin -- an earnest man then in his late twenties who was Clinton's personal assistant.
And, even though Clinton was at the command of the vast apparatus of the executive branch, his own staff knew that there were times to disregard his wishes. Through much of 1997, Currie and other aides who suspected that Clinton and Lewinsky might be having an affair resisted the president's suggestions that a White House job be found for her. Lewinsky had already been evicted once from the White House into a Pentagon job after then-deputy chief of staff Evelyn S. Lieberman concluded that she was "a clutch," always hanging around the president.
The president, Currie testified to the grand jury, "was pushing us hard," to see if Lewinsky could return. But Currie and Marsha Scott, deputy personnel director at the White House, discouraged the hiring.
"She didn't understand," Lewinsky recalled of her conversation with Scott, "why I wanted to come back when there were still people who would give me a hard time and that it isn't the right political climate for me to come back."
That quote, which Scott testified was essentially accurate, suggested another truth about the Clinton White House: There were large numbers of people who at a minimum knew the rumors of the Lewinsky relationship. Some apparently wrestled with the question of whether duty required enabling Clinton in his indiscretions or shielding him from temptation.
When Scott met with Lewinsky to talk about a temporary position in the personnel office, she reminded Lewinsky of the need to "be careful and protect" the president.
While Currie said she had "concern" about the time Clinton was spending with Lewinsky, she also apparently facilitated the relationship by clearing her regularly into the White House, often coming to the White House on weekends just for the purpose of letting Lewinsky in.
Starr's report noted further that many Secret Service officers "observed that the President often would head for the Oval Office within minutes of Ms. Lewinsky's entry to the complex, especially on weekends, and some noted that he would return to the residence a short time after her departure." In 1997, one officer, "concerned about the President's reputation," suggested putting Lewinsky on a list of people banned from the White House. A commander said "it was none of their business who the president chose to see."
But Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky, and his effort to cover it up, did sometimes intrude on official business, if the report is accurate. In November 1997, it said, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo was kept waiting inside the White House while Clinton was meeting privately with Lewinsky, who described the visit as "an hysterical escapade." Clinton, the report said, then rushed off to join Zedillo at a state dinner.
On Easter Sunday in 1996, Clinton and Lewinsky were in the Oval Office study for a sexual liaison. White House telephone operators became concerned when they could not reach the president for an important phone call. Secret Service Officer John Muskett knocked on the door of the Oval Office and called out loudly for the president. "Huh?" Clinton responded. A few minutes later, Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes arrived and Lewinsky rushed out a side door.
And high-level aides were enlisted, sometimes unwittingly, in Clinton's effort to placate Lewinsky once the affair was over. Clinton spoke with Chief of Staff Bowles about whether he could have legislative liaison John Hilley write a favorable job recommendation for Lewinsky, who was then seeking work in New York. Earlier Currie asked White House Deputy Chief of Staff John Podesta to help find Lewinsky a job in New York. Podesta approached Bill Richardson, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to ask if he could find a place for Lewinsky at the U.N.
Episodic damage control efforts had become a fact of life in the Clinton White House after Paula Jones filed her sexual harassment lawsuit in 1994. In July 1997, when the president was marking the expansion of the NATO alliance and completing a balanced-budget deal with Congress, he faced an internal crisis over an impending Newsweek article reporting allegations he had sexually harassed White House volunteer Kathleen Willey. Starr's report describes the president summoning Lewinsky to quiz her on what she knew. She sat in a nearby office while he talked with lawyers by phone for nearly an hour.
But this was only a hint of what was ahead. In the early hours of the morning of Jan. 21, when the allegations about Lewinsky broke, Clinton stayed up much of the night talking by phone with his private attorney, Robert S. Bennett, from 12:08 a.m. until 12:39 a.m.; then with White House deputy counsel Bruce Lindsey until 1:10 a.m.; then calling Currie at 1:16 a.m. for 20 minutes, before calling Lindsey again.
What followed was nearly eight months in which Clinton's staff was besieged with grand jury subpoenas while simultaneously spending hours each day mounting a defense for actions their boss had adamantly denied.
Clinton apparently never leveled directly with senior staff about the truth until last month. When the story first broke in January, he told Bowles and other senior aides, including Podesta (who now directs the White House political team's anti-impeachment effort) and communications adviser Sidney Blumenthal, that the allegations were untrue.
This deceit raises questions about whether, even now that Clinton has acknowledged the relationship, the White House can operate on the basis of trust. Bowles said he has come to terms with his boss's deception. "I've been disappointed and hurt," he said in a statement read by an aide. "But the president genuinely and sincerely apologized to me and I have accepted his apology. I am going to continue for as long as I am here to carry out his policies, which I believe have been extraordinarily good for the country. None of us are all good, or all bad."
Blumenthal, in an interview yesterday, said: "I'm not here to make public judgments about the president's private life. I'm here to work on the important issues on his agenda."
In his deposition in the Jones lawsuit, Clinton testified that he had tried to avoid situations that would inspire rumors about him and women, suggesting he was well aware of the gossip about his reputation for philandering.
As it happened, some of his senior aides were more vigilant on this resolution than he was. Clinton seemed to realize their interventions were for his own good. Lieberman, in her testimony, recalled Clinton saying that Lewinsky was upset about being removed from the White House. "He said, 'Do you know anything about this,' " Lieberman said. "I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Who fired her?' I said, 'I did.' And he said, 'Oh, okay.' "
Later, after Lewinsky was sent to the Pentagon, Lieberman recalled that she was not happy that Currie had cleared Lewinsky into the White House to watch a presidential helicopter departure. Lieberman said her comment to Currie was something on the line of: "What are you -- nuts?"
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