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Arguments Tailored For the Video Age

Clinton President Clinton in a clip from his videotaped deposition in the Paula Jones lawsuit. (MSNBC)

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  • By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, December 11, 1998; Page A24

    There he was again on the screen, the president of the United States, somber, stumbling and hesitant as he denied having had an affair with a woman whose name would become known worldwide in just four days.

    A disembodied President Clinton appeared on videotape in the House Judiciary Committee yesterday, a long-awaited visual unveiling of his Jan. 17 deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit. Both the Republican and Democratic lawyers exploited his words and demeanor in an effort to bolster their arguments. And both sides engaged in the art of selective editing, splicing and dicing the tapes like a TV news show to produce the most damaging sound bites.

    Perhaps the emotional high point of Republican committee counsel David P. Schippers's presentation came when he played the last of 13 excerpts from Clinton's taped deposition.

    Did he have an extramarital sexual affair with Monica S. Lewinsky?

    "No," Clinton said emphatically.

    If Lewinsky had said otherwise, Clinton said, shaking his head slightly and looking at Jones lawyer James Fisher, "it's certainly not the truth."

    But when asked one more time, Clinton appeared less confident, staring into the middle distance, as if sensing that his words might come back to haunt him. "I've never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky," he said in a flat voice. "I've never had an affair with her."

    There was nothing much new in yesterday's excerpts, since the transcript of most of the deposition was released nine months ago. But after repeated airings of the tape by round-the-clock newscasts, Clinton's hesitancy and hair-splitting on that fateful day are likely to be imprinted on the public consciousness.

    The video-age presentations followed the Republicans' decision to release the deposition tape to add some visual punch to their closing arguments. It is not clear whether the trial by VCR will have an impact on the House debate or, like the much-ballyhooed tape of Clinton's Aug. 17 grand jury testimony, create sympathy for the president as the target of a sexual inquisition. But it was the last missing image of a drama that has brought Clinton to the brink of impeachment.

    The first presentation was by Abbe D. Lowell, the Democratic committee counsel, who tried to inoculate Clinton by playing part of the tape himself, but with a sympathetic spin. The camera showed an intent-looking Clinton – shifting in his seat, fidgeting with his glasses – while his lawyer Robert S. Bennett argued with Jones's attorney for more than 10 minutes about the definition of sexual relations.

    During the fencing, Bennett was heard accusing the Jones side of trying to "lay a trap" for Clinton. Moments later, Lowell showed Clinton denouncing Jones's lawyers in his grand jury testimony, saying: "They were trying to set me up and trick me."

    Lowell also used MTV-style jump cuts to make independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr look evasive and foolish – saying "I don't know," "I'm not recalling that," "I have no recollection of it" in rapid-fire succession – in his own committee testimony.

    Schippers introduced his video excerpts with a dramatic flourish: "I'd like you to listen to the president's deceptions for yourself."

    Clinton stumbled when asked if he had ever been alone with Lewinsky, looking at the ceiling for guidance. "I think that there is a, it is – I have no specific recollection." He allowed that she might have "brought me some things to sign."

    The president paused for an uncomfortably long time when asked if he had ever given Lewinsky any gifts. "I don't recall. Do you know what they were?" he said, smiling. He appeared more casual and dismissive a moment later, saying that Lewinsky had given him gifts "once or twice."

    Even more damaging was the sight of an expressionless Clinton listening intently and nodding solemnly as Bennett read Lewinsky's sworn denial that she had had a sexual relationship with the president. Clinton later pronounced that denial "absolutely true."

    "Do you think for one moment after watching that tape that the president wasn't paying attention?" Schippers said triumphantly.


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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