For Aides, a Relentless Sense of Anxiety
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 3, 1998; Page A22
The rumors had been buzzing in some circles for days, but bad news sometimes takes longer to reach the top. It was not until the evening of Jan. 20 that White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles got word of a sensational story set to break in the next day's paper.
It was deputy chief of staff John D. Podesta, who had been trying to nail down the rumors for several days, who told Bowles that Tuesday about the allegations that Clinton had an affair with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, and about independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation of a suspected coverup.
"I said, 'You're kidding.' And he said, 'No,'‚" Bowles recalled. "And I said, 'Oh, God.' And, you know, I thought, 'Here we go again.'‚"
That agonized recollection, which Bowles shared with grand jurors under the duress of a subpoena, vividly captures a sentiment that legions of Clinton's subordinates have experienced over the years. It is a gnawing, anxious sense that they are working for a politician whose life contains vast regions about which they know little, a man prone to disasters that strike with little notice.
The thousands of pages of new grand jury testimony and other evidence made public yesterday offer an arresting portrait of life in the Clinton administration when the trap door swings open. Aides who one day were worrying about an imminent State of the Union address suddenly were struggling to comprehend a bizarre story whose origins they understood dimly and whose ending is still a mystery.
Senior White House aide Sidney Blumenthal told the grand jury he first learned of the brewing speculation about Clinton and Lewinsky a few days earlier when he was in Chicago for his cousin's bar mitzvah. With a portable computer, he scanned the Drudge Report, an online magazine against which Blumenthal had earlier filed a libel suit.
That same weekend, Podesta, a veteran of previous Clinton exercises in scandal management, placed an unsolicited call to Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff to press him on whether the magazine was about to publish.
Meanwhile, other members of Clinton's inner circle were in a better position to guess at the implications of the story that was about to break, and to understand that it might be true. Included in yesterday's document release was an inventory of 42 telephone calls placed on Monday, Jan. 19, by Clinton secretary Betty Currie and his close friend, Washington lawyer Vernon E. Jordan Jr.
The calls suggest their frantic mood. It was the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, two days after Clinton was grilled extensively about his relationship with Lewinsky in a deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case. It was two days before the story was about to explode into the headlines. Currie placed nine calls to Lewinsky's home and pager, using her code name, "Kay." One message urged her to call "re: family emergency."
Jordan, meanwhile, placed about 30 calls to Currie, and to numerous White House lawyers. Late that afternoon, at 5:56 p.m., Clinton called Jordan's office.
Some White House aides, including Bowles, later told the grand jury that they felt it was likely they had met the young clerical aide who would become one of America's most famous faces, but they had no memory of it at the time. But others knew full well who she was.
Clinton's senior secretary Nancy Hernreich whom Lewinsky regarded as one of the White House "meanies" from whom she and Clinton needed to conceal their amorous liaisons told prosecutors she had long suspected that something illicit might be going on. But Clinton's fondness for Lewinsky did not make Hernreich any more sympathetic.
"May I add something?" Hernreich asked a prosecutor in her testimony. "I might also add that the biggest thing, and I can't stress this enough, was the fact that I felt she was on a power kick."
Yet whatever suspicions White House aides harbored, none seemed to anticipate in those chaotic days as the story was breaking the degree to which they would become a part of it. The transcripts show a parade of aides undergoing detailed questioning, many invoking executive and attorney-client privileges, most seeming to regard their trips to the grand jury with all the enthusiasm of a trip to the dentist.
White House lawyer Bruce R. Lindsey, the Arkansas friend who is Clinton's closest confidant on the White House staff, described in his testimony the emotional toll exacted by the years of investigations and controversy that have swirled constantly around this president.
"I was a human being before I went to the White House," Lindsey said. "I'm not sure I've been one since."
But the full transcripts reveal even more vividly than the material released last month in Starr's report to Congress the extent to which aides were victimized by Clinton himself.
Aide after aide went before the grand jury describing how Clinton had denied, with utter conviction and even ferocity, having sexual relations with Lewinsky.
Podesta recalled meeting with Clinton the Sunday after the story broke to prepare for the State of the Union address. "He said he had the first decent night's sleep he had had and that he was I think angry at that meeting," Podesta said, adding that "Clinton repeated the denial and said, 'I'll fight this and we're going to get through it and I'm going to do this.'‚"
At the time they appeared before the grand jury, Clinton had not yet acknowledged his affair with Lewinsky and what he called his "misleading" statements about it. At the same time polls were showing that most Americans already had concluded Clinton was lying, aides insisted to grand jurors that they believed their boss.
"All right. Let me say what I think," Bowles testified. "All I can tell you is: This guy who I've worked for looked me in the eye and said he did not have sexual relations with her. And if I didn't believe him, I couldn't stay."
Bowles last month said he had accepted Clinton's apology. He has told colleagues he plans to leave the White House this fall, probably within a few weeks, because he is eager to return to his family and business in North Carolina, not because he is angry at Clinton for lying to him.
Much of the testimony released yesterday hardly makes for page-turning reading. It is repetitive, often arcane, the unedited transcripts lacking the dramatic force of Starr's report to Congress. But there do seem to be common themes woven through the 4,610 pages.
One of the most mystifying is prosecutors' obsession with White House adviser Blumenthal, a man who is by the accounts of colleagues obsessed with Starr and what he regards as his abusive tactics.
Time and again, Starr's deputies pressed aides like Podesta and White House lawyer Lanny A. Breuer to say what they knew about Blumenthal and his relationship with Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Prosectors apparently believed Blumenthal may have played a critical role in leaking information designed to malign Starr or otherwise thwart the investigation. But their line of questioning often just seemed to reveal an unusual curiosity about their adversary.
In his testimony, Blumenthal appeared to exasperate prosecutors, leaving the grand jury room often to consult with his lawyers. And he showed the kind of self-promotional flair for which many friends say he is justly famous. Asked to describe his relationship with the president, Blumenthal recited his professional re»sume» as a writer. "I've written a number of books, three of which were New York Times Notable Books of the Year. I've been a playwright, screen writer."
The testimony released yesterday also shows Clinton aides trying to keep their wits about them under what Podesta called the "almost hyperventilating" news coverage the White House receives. Beginning on Friday, Jan. 16, Podesta testified, some senior aides were deluged with urgent phone calls from Time magazine, whose reporters had gotten wind that Newsweek was on the verge of a "blockbuster story."
"Their whole bureau was kind of thumb-banging the White House, to see if they could find out" what the competition was up to, Podesta said. "And for those of you who are not in the news business, this is the way these people do business. . . . They don't like to get beat, so they were scratching at the White House, to figure out whether we knew and whether we would tell what was going on."
Podesta knew only dimly, and was plainly of no mind to share what he did know. He recalled urgent conversations with presidential counselor Douglas B. Sosnik and White House deputy counsel Cheryl D. Mills to get to the bottom of the rumors.
Rumor became reality several days later, when the Lewinsky allegations were published on the front page of The Washington Post's Jan. 21 editions. "It was definitely a gloomy day," Podesta said of his meeting with Bowles and Clinton that morning. And the president's mood? "Oh, I'd say he was bothered by the story."
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