Clinton Accused Special Report
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Candidate Bill Clinton admitted causing "pain in my marriage" in a 1992 interview with CBS's "60 Minutes." (AP file photo)

Full text of Saturday's White House response. The Starr report is also online.

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For Clinton, a Familiar Cycle (Washington Post, Aug. 16)

In Clinton, a Past That's Ever Prologue (Washington Post, Jan. 25)

Chapter One of Maraniss's book, "First in His Class: The Biography of Bill Clinton."

Clinton's Behavior Patterns Become Issue

By David Maraniss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 1998; Page A29

There is a surreal scene on Page 242 of the Starr report where President Clinton is offering several false or misleading explanations to a White House assistant a few hours after the Monica S. Lewinsky story broke last Jan. 21. Clinton asserts he has "done nothing wrong," had talked to Lewinsky perhaps once on the telephone, and that she "made a sexual demand" on him but he rebuffed her. She had threatened him, he said, was "known as a stalker" among her peers, and would not leave him alone.

After making this sweeping declaration of innocence to his aide, Sidney Blumenthal, a former journalist steeped in politics, literature and conspiracy theories, Clinton compares himself to Nicholas Rubashov, the protagonist in a famous Arthur Koestler novel who is imprisoned and eventually executed on false charges, a victim of the monstrous powers of a police state.

"I feel like somebody who is surrounded by an oppressive force that is creating a lie about me and I can't get the truth out," Clinton says. "I feel like the character in the novel 'Darkness at Noon.' "

In avoiding blame for his troubles and comparing himself to Rubashov, Clinton evoked many of the characteristics that are a familiar part of his history: his fertile literary imagination, his sense of victimhood, his desire to please, his need to conceal his own embarrassing sexual behavior, his tendency toward self-delusion, his legitimate concerns about the invasive powers of his adversaries, and his peculiar manipulation of semantics to construct a story line at once compelling and illusory.

The 453-page report by the Office of Independent Counsel is replete with scenes of Clinton adjusting to his predicament in similar ways. He might be talking almost anywhere to anyone -- in the White House with an assistant, on television addressing the nation, in the Oval Office flirting with Lewinsky, in the outer office refreshing the memory of his secretary, Betty Currie, on the telephone with his friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. or his old consultant Dick Morris, at a lawyer's office giving a civil deposition, even in the Map Room testifying before a federal grand jury -- and the same Clinton characteristics emerge time after time.

These behavior patterns are at the core of the case against the president, and also, paradoxically, at the heart of his defense. The implicit but unstated theme of the legal and political debate that now imperils his stay in office is this: Should Bill Clinton be impeached for being Bill Clinton?

From the perspective of Clinton's biography, the Starr report in many respects seems to be plowing another path down a well-worn field. Since Clinton first ran for office in Arkansas nearly a quarter-century ago, the evidence suggests that he has placed himself in danger through his sexual recklessness and then done virtually everything he could, after the fact, to conceal his actions from family, friends, aides, party allies, adversaries, and the voting public, thereby avoiding the worst personal and political consequences of his private behavior.

In the past his efforts to conceal information, to the extent that they were known or suspected, were largely considered in that context: as damage control undertaken to keep his marriage together, his friendships intact, his staff loyal, his party and the voters on his side, his adversaries at bay, his political dream alive.

But Kenneth W. Starr and his deputies, by focusing on the patterns of the president's actions in the Lewinsky affair, dramatically shifted the lens. Clinton's sexual behavior and his efforts to conceal it have now been placed in a criminal framework. What for decades had been habitual personal and political damage control suddenly became grounds for impeachment.

Both sides are now using the essence of that notion in their arguments. The defining theme of Clinton's rebuttal, as presented Friday by his lawyer, David E. Kendall, is the line: "The simple reality of this situation is that the House is being confronted with evidence of a man's efforts to keep an inappropriate relationship private." The Starr report puts it this way: "The nature of the relationship was the subject of many of the president's false statements, and his desire to keep the relationship secret provides a motive for many of his actions that apparently were designed to obstruct justice."

Perhaps it was inevitable that the impeachment case would turn largely on issues of semantics. Clinton's entire career has been shaped by disputes over words: what he has said, or failed to say, or almost said, or denied saying, or insisted that he had said, or people thought he had said. The stakes in that debate seemed to increase every year, until finally they reached the level of whether his words constituted perjury or obstruction of justice.

It is apparent from the Starr document that the president's "close parsing" of words, as the report refers to it at one point, drove the independent counsel and his deputies to distraction, and that they became determined to call him on it. But what was really new here was the context, and Starr's prosecutorial powers, not the pattern of Clinton's semantic maneuverings.

A journey back into his career would find abundant examples of Clinton's "close parsing" during any era, some involving sex, others not. During the 1992 campaign, when he denied Gennifer Flowers's allegations that she had had a 12-year affair with him, his statement that "the story is untrue" was his way of denying only that the affair lasted for 12 years, not that he never had sex with her. Similarly, when he uttered the phrase "a woman I never slept with" to further refute Flowers's allegations, Clinton might maintain that it was technically accurate because he never literally fell asleep with her.

The best known Clinton wordplay of that kind involved drugs, not sex. During his years in Arkansas, Clinton responded to all questions about whether he had ever smoked marijuana by stating that he had never broken any state or federal laws. Finally, when pinned with the precisely correct question -- had he ever smoked marijuana while a Rhodes scholar in England -- he acknowledged that indeed he had (though he had not inhaled).

Such semantic tricks seemed preposterous, if nonetheless somewhat effective, at the time. Now they are completely accepted as a central aspect of Clinton's defense. In their rebuttal to the Starr report, Clinton's lawyers perfectly capture his semantic legerdemain by making the argument that it is within any defendant's rights to state things that are true but misleading. "Answers to questions that are literally true are not perjury," they argue. "Even if an answer doesn't directly answer the question asked, it is not perjury if it is true -- no accused has an obligation to help his accuser." It is also within his rights, they said, to give "narrow answers to ambiguous questions."

From Clinton's history one can see the antecedents: the Flowers statements were perhaps true but misleading, and the marijuana answer was a narrow response to an ambiguous question. During his days in Arkansas, people who dealt with Clinton became accustomed to these methods of "close parsing." He once told the state teachers union that if they endorsed another candidate he would "tear off their heads and beat their brains out."

When the teachers interpreted this to mean that he might hold a grudge against them if they endorsed his opponent, Clinton thundered, "Nothing could be further from the truth and I resent this!" In his semantic realm, his limb-and-head-wrenching threat was meant only to apply to the moment, not to the future, he insisted.

Clinton used all of these techniques in responding to questions under oath during the Lewinsky investigation. The Starr report claims that Clinton committed perjury when he testified under oath that he had not had a sexual relationship, or sexual affair, or sexual relations with Lewinsky. He and his lawyers assert that he was merely being misleading, that in his mind only sexual intercourse, not oral sex, met those definitions.

During his grand jury appearance before Starr and his deputies, Clinton acknowledged his practice of giving statements that were true but misleading. When he was asked whether he had lied to his top aides in the days after the scandal broke, the president asserted that he had said "things that were true about this relationship" with Lewinsky. ". . . I said, there's nothing going on between us. That was true. I said I did not have sex as I defined it. That was true."

Clinton even went on to explain how he used grammatical tenses to make distinctions in truth, especially as applied to his previous statements that "there is no" relationship with Lewinsky. "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is," he testified. "If 'is' means is and never has been . . . that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement. Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true."

Starr and his deputies found Clinton incredible in all of his semantic moves and based their 11-count impeachment referral on their conclusion that he was a practiced liar who knew that he was lying. At the Paula Jones deposition, they asserted, "the president could not have believed that he was telling 'the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth' in denying a sexual relationship, sexual relations, or a sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky."

But an utterly ironic argument can be made, according to some legal scholars, that Clinton's long-standing pattern of semantic maneuvering has had the effect of making his claims against perjury more credible. Perjury requires that a person knowingly and willfully set out to deceive. Perhaps Clinton has become so habitual in his methods that they are no longer an act of deception.

"Given Clinton's past history of trying to avoid responsibility for his actions by using narrow and technical language," said UCLA law professor Peter Arenella, "there is every reason to accept his claim that he believed what he did with Monica Lewinsky did not meet the definition of sexual relations."

David Maraniss is the author of "First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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