Day Could Narrow Credibility Gap
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 17, 1998; Page A1 In the midst of a surprisingly hard-fought 1990 race for Arkansas governor, a debate questioner pressed Bill Clinton on whether he would pledge to serve a full four-year term if he won reelection.
"You bet," Clinton replied. His advisers, who knew that Clinton was contemplating a run for the presidency in 1992, said later they were dumbfounded by the answer.
And so, less than a year later, the very first order of business as Clinton began his career in national politics was an awkward-but-necessary correction of the record. He traveled the state, ostensibly seeking permission from Arkansans to break his word and run for president.
For all the distance that Clinton has climbed in those years, the fateful appearance he will make before prosecutors in the White House this afternoon will bring him back to a familiar place. The place is a rhetorical gray zone, where language is malleable and meaning is opaque. It is here that this president has sought to explain and defend himself on subjects as varied as the draft, marijuana, Gennifer Flowers, Lincoln Bedroom fund-raising, tax cuts for the middle class, tax increases on the wealthy.
Once again, words Clinton uttered to rescue himself from a tight spot have come back to make his problems worse.
Once again, Clinton is in trouble because of an apparent gap between his words and reality as others understand it.
The looming question, hanging over Clinton more urgently than ever before, is what such a change of story about whether he had a sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky would do to the larger issue of his credibility.
Sources familiar with Clinton's strategy say he is planning to acknowledge having intimate physical encounters with Lewinsky, but assert that his denials of a sexual relationship when he testified in the Paula Jones lawsuit do not constitute perjury because of his understanding of the term "sexual relations." Still unclear is how he would reconcile such an admission with his flat public denials of a sexual relationship with the former White House intern denials that his own aides said were intended to cover all sexual activities, not merely intercourse.
In interviews this weekend, a variety of presidential scholars and current and former aides said that how Clinton publicly explains his expected change of story could set his reputation indelibly for the balance of his term and for history. Several Clinton sympathizers said they are desperate for him not to take refuge in the kind of artful manipulations of language he has employed in the past.
"This is an opportunity for him not just to get out of the problem of the moment but to save his soul to take responsibility for his own actions," said former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers.
"He has an elastic idea of truth," said Arkansas editorialist Paul Greenberg. "He's very adept at leaving an audience with the impression that is most advantageous to him at the time, without violating the truth in some semantic sense but violating ... it in any other sense."
Greenberg was the person who first gave Clinton the devastating sobriquet "Slick Willie." That was in 1980, nearly two decades ago. And the intervening years have given the nation great familiarity with the verbal acrobatics that Greenberg viewed with such scorn.
For years Clinton gave the impression that he had never experimented with marijuana by answering he had never "broken the laws of my country," before finally admitting that he smoked in England. His 1992 campaign was plagued by a series of partial, and sometimes conflicting, answers he gave about his Vietnam-era draft status. In the controversy over 1996 Democratic fund-raising, Clinton asserted that he had never held fund-raisers at the White House; drawing a razor-thin distinction, spokesmen said that White House coffees were not fund-raisers precisely but were part of a "fund-raising plan."
If Clinton's rhetorical feints are easy to make fun of late-night comedians do it all the time it is also easy to miss how his fluency with language is at the core of his success as president, according to Clinton aides and presidential scholars. His ability to persuade widely disparate audiences that he believes the same thing they do is one reason he is the first Democrat in a generation to both hold his party together and win the White House twice in a row.
"His greatest strength as president" is as a Democrat able to maneuver in a Republican era, said Jeffrey Tulis, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas. "He's a very pragmatic president, and his rhetorical style facilitates that pragmatism."
In Myers's view, however, Clinton over the years may have become a prisoner of his own rhetorical style: "He lays a trap for himself with language, then tries to get out of it with more language. He's a great communicator, but this [Lewinsky] problem is not about verbal acuity."
Yet there are signs that Clinton may be searching for precisely the sort of rhetorical escape hatches that Myers wants him to avoid.
For more than six months, Clinton has seemed to leave no ambiguity at all about whether he had a physical relationship with Lewinsky. He denied it in the Jones sexual harassment case (and said he could not recall whether he had ever been alone with her). He repeated the denial most famously for television cameras a few days later in his famous Roosevelt Room appearance, in a jut-jawed, squinted-eyes, hand-jabbing performance that is certain to be played and replayed to chilling effect over the next several days.
"Listen to me," he said then. "I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."
At the time, reporters pressed Clinton aides on whether "sexual relations" included intimate physical behavior short of intercourse. White House aides assured people publicly and privately that Clinton was not trying to draw any such fine distinctions.
But today, according to sources who have spoken to Clinton and his lawyers, he plans to attempt to walk such a line after all. He is prepared to admit to adolescent-style "sex play" with Lewinsky but assert that he did not lie in the Jones case because his actions did not constitute a "sexual relationship."
Historian Robert Dallek, who has written books on Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, said such an assertion could cripple Clinton's ability to lead. "Rhetoric is the coin of the realm for a president," said Dallek, "but there is something a bit much about this. Is it manipulation of language, or of reality?"
FDR, he noted, was masterful at leaving different audiences with opposite impressions, but he was disciplined enough in his use of language that he never eroded public trust. Clinton, while maintaining high public support for his performance in office, has suffered in a decline of credibility. A Newsweek poll released this weekend asked people if he had "the honesty and integrity you expect in a president."
In the summer of 1992, 70 percent of people answered yes to that question. Now, 55 percent of people answered no.
Presidential scholars urge a sense of proportion in judging Clinton. President Ronald Reagan on several occasions gave audiences the impression that, as an Army Signal Corps photographer, he had personally filmed the liberation of Nazi death camps, even though he never served overseas in World War II. And Clinton's evasions, Dallek noted, hardly match the grand-scale deceptions that Johnson carried out during the Vietnam War or President Richard M. Nixon engaged in during Watergate.
In recent days, some Clinton aides have said that, while they long suspected that the president may have had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, they are still coming to terms with the apparent fact that his assurances to them were false. Veterans of the 1992 campaign said they were routinely caught unprepared by the candidate's changing explanations of his draft history. That controversy, more than any other, helped forge Clinton's reputation as a politician whose words must be scrutinized with extra care.
In a December 1991 interview with The Washington Post, Clinton was asked why he had never been called for military service, even though he lacked a deferment during the first year he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. "I told them [his local draft board officials] I expected to be called while I was over there the first year, but they never did," he said. He also called his avoidance of the draft "a pure fluke."
In April 1992, after it was revealed that he had received an induction notice during that first year, he told reporters, "I would gladly have told you this if it had even occurred to me that this was relevant to the story."
In the fall of 1992, Clinton acknowledged in a debate that he had not handled the issue well, but explained that "no one had ever questioned my role." The record showed that he had been pressed publicly on the issue in Arkansas as far back as 1978 when he expressly denied getting a deferment.
Political scientist Stanley A. Renshon, author of "High Hopes," a psychological biography of Clinton, speculates that the president rationalizes deceptions through his belief in a "liar's loophole."
"My purposes are so noble, and the purposes of my enemies are so bad, that whatever I do to advance my purposes is justified," Renshon said in explaining his analysis of Clinton. "He always thinks he'll get away with it." It is this belief that allows Clinton to focus on winning the audience before him rather than long-term consequences, Renshon added.
The implications of this impulse go beyond Clinton's personal life. In the 1992 primaries he promised a middle-class tax cut, despite warnings there was no way to pay for it. He abandoned the pledge soon after election. In the 1996 campaign he told wealthy contributors that he had not wanted to raise taxes so much on the rich but that Congress pressured him to do it. The comment, at odds with the recollections of nearly all other participants in the budget battle, caused a storm of controversy.
Clinton, however, does not typically yield easily when contradictions are pointed out to him. Last year, White House documents showed Clinton's handwriting on a Democratic National Committee memo proposing to use Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers as a reward to donors: "Ready to start overnights right away." But when asked about the propriety of using the White House for such purposes, Clinton snapped, "That was one more false story we've had to endure."
Renshon, who said he voted for Clinton and believes he had great potential as a president, speculated that if Clinton revises his story about Lewinsky, it will be with anger rather than contrition. "I think he'll put it down as something that was forced on him," he said. "I think he'll look at himself as a victim."
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
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