"Ever since I was elected," Clinton told Dick Morris,
"I've tried to shut my
body down, I mean, sexually,
and sometimes I just failed.
do what they said I did,
but I did do
and I don't know if I
can prove my innocence."
As he entered 1998, the sixth year of his presidency, Clinton’s life was surrounded with an air of expectancy. Certainly the looming Jones case and the Lewinsky entanglement shadowed his thoughts and occupied many hours of his time at the turn of the year. His deposition in the case was scheduled for January 17, less than three weeks away. This matter, though, occupied only one corner of the president’s psychic space. Other corners were fixed on the promise, not the hazards, waiting in the weeks ahead.
His presidency had awakened from the lassitude of 1997. Late in December, Clinton held forth about his future plans at a news conference for a full ninety minutes, the longest such encounter of his presidency. After years on the defensive, when incremental gains in his agenda were the best he could hope for with a constrained budget and a hostile Republican Congress, he announced he was now eager to pivot to the “long-term problems of the country, the long-term challenges.” He vowed to enact an international agreement on pollution aimed at combating global warming. He pledged to push forward on free trade, an issue about which, he acknowledged, many in his own party had misgivings. Democrats had doubts, too, about another of his announced priorities: fixing the Medicare and Social Security programs, in recognition that these popular entitlement programs were too expensive to be sustained at current levels as the baby-boom generation retired. All these were indeed long-term problems, and addressing them would require leadership of a sort Clinton seemed well positioned to offer. In the near term, as a run-up to the 1998 State of the Union, Clinton and his aides had fashioned and previewed a flurry of policy initiatives, on issues as diverse as AIDS prevention, expanding the Peace Corps, and improving federal food inspections. There was much more to come, they promised, in the January 27 speech. All this left an impression, accurately, of a still young and still creative president eager to make the most of the remaining three years of his presidency.
His personal life seemed settled in a comfortable place as well. With the Clintons now firmly in middle age—he was now fifty-one and she was fifty—they had reason to be content with the trajectory of their life together. The ordeals they had suffered, political and personal, were more than outweighed by the achievements. The daughter they had raised in such unusual circumstances, amid the glare of a political life, had reached young adulthood as an intelligent and appealing young woman, though Chelsea Clinton’s public reserve made her still little known to the nation. She had enrolled the previous fall at Stanford University. The void in the household was filled in part by a pet, a chocolate Labrador retriever named Buddy. The first family repaired to a four-day Caribbean vacation in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In St. Thomas, Clinton slept late, ate out only once, and even golfed only once. He told reporters he was lying low because he wanted to spend time with his family and reflect on the balance of his presidency. He curled up with a new book by journalist Robert Kaplan, the same writer who earlier had influenced his thinking on Bosnia, entitled The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century.
One afternoon, the first family walked down to frolic at a secluded beach near their borrowed home. The president and first lady, both in swimsuits, began dancing playfully on the beach. Across a lagoon, an Agence France-Presse photographer, hidden among some bushes, shot an image that was beamed around the world. The White House protested what it called an invasion of privacy. Cynics presumed the dance and the protest were a deliberate put-on, a way of presenting the Clintons as a loving couple in the days before the Jones deposition. Hillary Clinton, however, seemed authentically outraged, and noted plausibly that not many women in their fifties are eager to be photographed in a swimsuit. The president, aides said, seemed to regard the whole fuss as rather amusing. Even if the dance itself had not been intended as a publicity shot, the doting on Hillary Clinton was well timed. He surely knew the weeks ahead, in which news of the impending deposition would reach a crescendo, would be hard for her. As he had lavished attention on Lewinsky before leaving town, he now lavished attention on his wife.
As the year began, this president was well established in the public mind as a man of contradictions. Polls consistently showed solid majorities believed Clinton “does not have high personal moral and ethical standards.” The toll, however, was on balance rather modest. At the New Year, Gallup took a poll that put Clinton atop the list of the public’s “most admired” men. Another survey found that nearly 80 percent of the public said the Jones allegations had not affected their opinion of Clinton. When asked about the Jones case a few days before his deposition, Clinton told an interviewer, “I just try to put it over in a little box and go and do my work.”
Clinton, undisciplined in some settings, was fanatically disciplined in others. In the days before his Jones deposition, he was a methodical man, carefully practicing his answers again and again. He and his lawyers spent six hours in rehearsal on the Friday night before the deposition, January 16, then Clinton insisted that they practice another ninety minutes the next morning. He had decided he would lie, under oath, rather than answer embarrassing questions about his sexual history.
He had been warned, bluntly, about the dangers of this. On Friday night, his lawyer Robert Bennett had told Clinton he found the president’s answers about his relationship with Marilyn Jo Jenkins, the Arkansas utility executive who had paid 5 a.m. visits to the governor’s mansion after the 1992 election, “frankly unbelievable.” If Clinton lied, “The crazies will come after you. They will try to impeach you if you lie. That’s the only thing to worry about.”
“I hear you,” Clinton said.
Perhaps, but instead he chose to listen to his inner counsel. Clinton believed, with reason, that Paula Jones’s suit was spurious. A little more than two months later, the federal judge in the case, Susan Webber Wright, a Republican appointee, agreed. He believed that questions no one had a right to ask were not entitled to a truthful answer. In any event, when it came to Monica Lewinsky—just one of seven women he knew he would be asked about in the deposition—he might have believed he was telling the truth in some rough sense of the word. Several of his lawyers and political aides reached this conclusion. Several weeks before Clinton testified, Lewinsky had seized on the same insight. In surreptitiously taped conversations with Linda Tripp, Lewinsky noted: “The way that man thinks, I don’t think he thinks of lying under oath.... He doesn’t think about it in those terms. Okay?” In Clinton’s mind, forever navigating between desire, guilt, and rationalization, he believed he had stayed on the right side of an important line with Lewinsky by never indulging in intercourse. So no matter the lurid specifics of what he might be asked in the deposition, he felt justified in denying a sexual relationship. He also felt confident in this deception. On January 7, Lewinsky had signed an affidavit saying she had “never had a sexual relationship with the President.” The young woman was heading to New York. With Vernon Jordan’s assistance, she had been offered a job at Revlon. Clinton’s efforts to massage this delicate problem seemed to have worked out just fine.
What Clinton did not know was that on the same Friday he was rehearsing his testimony, other people were equally busy in anticipation of the next day’s deposition. In suburban Virginia, at the Pentagon City mall, agents for Ken Starr’s Whitewater prosecution surrounded Monica Lewinsky as she arrived for a meeting with Linda Tripp and detained her for several hours in a partially successful effort to interrogate her. They had learned of her false affidavit and Vernon Jordan’s efforts on her behalf. Starr’s team was convinced, though the lawyers could never prove it, that similar efforts by Clinton and Jordan had helped buy Webster Hubbell’s silence on Whitewater. The day before, ecstatic over a chance to prove a pattern, Starr had sought and received authority from the Justice Department to expand his probe to examine possible obstruction of justice in the Jones case. This represented a breathtaking merger of the criminal investigation that was Clinton’s longest-running torment and the civil suit that was his longest- running embarrassment. The story’s multiple lines were tangled in other ways. Under the orchestration of Lucianne Goldberg, Tripp had told her story to Michael Isikoff, a reporter at Newsweek magazine. That very night, in a meeting with Tripp’s lawyer, they heard her recorded tapes of conversations with Lewinsky, in which she talked of her affair and the efforts she and Clinton had taken to avoid disclosure in the Jones case. At the same time, Isikoff’s editors debated whether the story of this alleged affair—and the late-breaking intervention of Starr—was nailed down solidly enough to report by the magazine’s Saturday deadline.
Meanwhile, Tripp, eager to help Clinton’s adversaries, met late in the evening with the Paula Jones attorneys who would be questioning Clinton that morning. The plot and its spiteful cast of characters were becoming hard to follow. The president and his wife had complained for years about a conservative conspiracy to undermine them. His suspicions did not prevent him from waltzing into what surely was, if not necessarily a conspiracy, then certainly a well-orchestrated trap. Lewinsky had confided to Tripp, who, in her disdain for Clinton and eagerness to sell a book about her Clinton adventures, had violated the confidence by telling Goldberg, who with relish saw to it that both Newsweek and the Paula Jones lawyers knew about the affair with Lewinsky. Paula Jones’s attorneys, meanwhile, were tapped into a network of conservative lawyers who were delighted to ensure that Ken Starr’s team knew everything.
The deposition took place at Robert Bennett’s law firm, the offices of Skadden, Arps, just two blocks from the White House. Clinton’s motorcade arrived through a basement garage, and around ten-thirty he arrived in the conference room. The two sides sat across a large, oval-shaped wooden table. Paula Jones was already waiting in the room when Clinton arrived. This was only their second encounter, or possibly even their first. For nearly four years, Clinton had maintained publicly that he had no recollection of even meeting Jones in 1991. He gave her no acknowledgment now. Knowing Clinton’s garrulous penchant, and his tendency to charm even adversaries, his lawyers had warned him to stay coolly distant during the deposition, which would last the next six hours. On this most unfortunate day for Clinton, he did get a couple of lucky breaks. The first was that Bennett had succeeded in persuading Judge Wright to preside over the deposition in person. She had not been at other depositions. In this case, Bennett persuaded her that she should be present, in deference to the unusual circumstances and to protect the dignity of the institution of the presidency. Her attendance meant she could make rulings on the relevance of certain inquiries, as well as provide a general restraining presence, that prevented the questioning from being even more wide-ranging and intrusive than it would have been. The second stroke of luck was that the Jones attorneys, evidently hoping to impress Wright about their eagerness to maintain decorum, proposed that they not ask Clinton direct questions, such as whether a particular woman had performed oral sex on him. Instead, they arrived at the hearing with a written, clinically worded three-part “definition of sexual relations.” Wright was skeptical, noting that she had long since reached a point in this case where awkward subjects were no longer so embarrassing. Perhaps he should just ask his questions directly, she suggested to James Fisher, a Jones lawyer. Bennett cautioned that an elaborate definition might be an effort to confuse his client. Finally, Wright forced the Jones attorneys to narrow their wording and approved an official definition of sexual relations for purposes of the deposition: “contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person.” This contorted definition, far from confusing the witness as Bennett had protested, would in time be seen as his salvation.
The deceptions continued even after the deposition ended. When Clinton returned to the White House, Rahm Emanuel, a senior political adviser, asked how things had gone. “It went great,” the president enthused. “I did really well.”
Clinton’s actions that evening made plain he knew the day had been a disaster—and that the days ahead would likely bring still more disasters. The White House functions as a kind of satellite dish on political Washington; when bad news is building, the president’s aides usually hear the static even before they can make out the precise words. Friday evening and Saturday, while Clinton was trying to bluster his way through the deposition, the senior political hands on his staff were being bombarded with frantic calls from reporters at Time magazine who had heard vague rumors that Newsweek was preparing some kind of sensational report. John Podesta decided to call Michael Isikoff directly to ask what was happening. Isikoff was not forthcoming, but he did ask Podesta whether he knew a young woman named Monica Lewinsky. Now Podesta realized why Betty Currie had been so concerned about that young woman’s job hunt. Podesta told lawyer Cheryl Mills about Newsweek’s interest in Lewinsky, and she in turn called Bruce Lindsey, who was waiting in an office just outside where Clinton was giving his deposition. The president and Lindsey spoke several times during breaks in the questioning.
The two spoke again in the Oval Office when the deposition was over, to review it and its troubling focus on Lewinsky. His agitation mounting, the president canceled plans to have dinner with the first lady and Erskine Bowles and his wife. Instead, he called Currie at home and instructed her to come to the office the next day, a Sunday. By the next morning, the first confusing fragments of the story were public. Newsweek editors had chosen not to run Isikoff’s story that weekend, but the internal debate at the magazine about this decision was splashed onto the Drudge Report, a then little-known Web site. The item, which did not mention Lewinsky by name, had been leaked to Drudge by the scandal’s impresario, Lucianne Goldberg. When Currie arrived at the White House that afternoon, an anxious Clinton came to her desk outside the Oval Office to tell her that the deposition had included pointed questions about Lewinsky. “There are several things you may want to know,” Clinton said, as Currie later recalled it. What followed was a series of questions that sounded more like statements, and statements that sounded really like questions, since it was obvious to Currie that Clinton was desperately seeking her assent.
“You were always there when she was there, right?
“You remember I was never really alone with Monica, right?
“Monica came on to me, and I never touched her, right?
“You can see and hear everything [in the Oval Office], right?”
Clinton had enlisted Currie as a helper in his tangled relationship with Lewinsky. Still, the plain fact was that he had misused her loyalty, leaving her in an exposed and embarrassed position when the Lewinsky mess became public. For the next two days, the White House carried on its business under an eerie half-light, with everyone waiting for a storm that was sure to arrive. Vernon Jordan tried a last-minute push to persuade Clinton to settle the case. His loyalty, too, had been pushed to the brink, and the sinking feeling in the White House that the presidency might be genuinely on the verge of collapse was driven in large measure by fear that either Currie or Jordan might cooperate with Starr’s probe. On Monday, January 19, the president placed some thirty calls to White House lawyers and Currie. Meanwhile, the secretary was leaving her own urgent messages and pages with Lewinsky, none of which were returned. Currie soon left the White House, and even her own house, checking into a hotel and ignoring a stream of frantic messages from White House aides urging her to call. At the advice of her lawyer, she would recount to prosecutors Clinton’s conversation with her in which he appeared to be trying to coach her to agree that he and Lewinsky had never been alone.
The inevitable happened on Tuesday night, January 20, while Clinton was in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Washington Post and ABC News simultaneously reported the story that Isikoff had been on the verge of breaking the previous weekend. The president first got the news from his lawyer David Kendall, which itself was a sign that the expected news had an unexpected twist. Bennett represented Clinton in the Paula Jones matter; Kendall represented the first family in the Whitewater investigation. It was during Kendall’s call that Clinton first learned that his nemesis Kenneth Starr was now pursuing obstruction of justice in the Jones matter. The implications were instantly obvious. This was the most severe crisis of a crisis-prone career. Clinton’s presidency was on the precipice.
As the Netanyahu session finished shortly before midnight, Clinton’s evening was just beginning. He talked with Vernon Jordan, who was in New York. The story being published in the Post was not true, he told Jordan, who did not know all the facts but knew enough from his conversations with Lewinsky to know the facts were not exactly favorable. “He said he was aware of the seriousness of it, and serious, in his mind, because according to him, it was not true,” Jordan later testified. From 12:08 a.m. to 12:39 a.m., Clinton spoke with Bennett. He then immediately called Lindsey and spent a half hour with him. Then he called Betty Currie, at 1:16 a.m., and in a twenty-minute call warned her that her name would be in the morning newspaper. Then he called Lindsey again. He told his aides later that he never did go back to sleep. Those hours, from 2 a.m. on, with no one left to call until the harsh glare of morning came, gave Clinton ample time to contemplate the folly of his actions with Lewinsky. He was in a contrite mood by 6:30 a.m., when he phoned Jordan again. Jordan himself was already caught in the frenzy. He had been awakened in the middle of the night, he told the president, by David Bloom, an NBC News reporter seeking comment on the Post story. “I’ve gotten you involved in this because you’re my friend and I’m sorry about it,” Clinton told Jordan.
Jordan gave Clinton the assurance he was looking for: "Mr. President, you don’t need to apologize. We’re friends and let’s get on with it.” The question was whether Hillary Clinton would be as understanding. She was still sleeping while the president talked to Jordan. When Clinton awakened her, as she recounted the morning on national television a few days later, he said he had something to tell her. “You’re not going to believe this but ... ,” he began.
“What is this?” she answered quietly.
“...but I want to tell you what’s in the newspapers.”
The next person Clinton spoke with was his aide Rahm Emanuel, who had taken over George Stephanopoulos’s old job. The president had a casual rapport with Emanuel, compared to his edgy relationship with Stephanopoulos. Emanuel greeted him in the residence after reading that morning’s Washington Post. “Is this story fucking true?” he exclaimed.
“No,” replied Clinton weakly.
“Then you better be ready to fight,” Emanuel said.
The president, though, was not yet in a fighting mode. He was in shock, for now trying merely to find some solid ground. While he was not by instinct a truthful man about his personal life, flatly untruthful statements were not his first instinct either. His preference was for qualified and equivocal language that could give reassurance to audiences who needed it. The first such audience was his senior staff, to whom Clinton said: “I want you to know I did not have sexual relationships with this woman, Monica Lewinsky. I did not ask anybody to lie. And when the facts come out, you’ll understand.” With his restrained manner and careful wording—there were no indignant denunciations of the press or Starr this morning—he left participants in this meeting with the belief that he was communicating not a full denial but a partial one.
Surely something had happened, and it was by no means a good thing, but perhaps not as bad as it seemed.
This kind of nuance was easier to convey to a private audience than a public one. As luck would have it, the president was scheduled to give three interviews that day to promote the State of the Union address, which was then six days away. Canceling the appointments would only contribute to an air of crisis and impending doom. The interviews would have to go forward, and Clinton would have to talk about the Lewinsky controversy in some fashion. These interviews were pitiable performances. The first was with Jim Lehrer of PBS’s News Hour program. Clinton tried to appear calm and relaxed. He chatted amiably with the host, and brought in Buddy, the dog, to show off for his visitors. It was obvious he was stalling for time. Lehrer, displaying no interest in the dog, finally reminded the president firmly that they needed to get started. Clinton denied to Lehrer that he had told anyone to lie under oath. He spoke of the controversy as if he, like the rest of the country, was monitoring it from afar, like an unexplained plane crash: “I think it’s very important that we let the investigation take its course.” While declining to address many of the specific questions, he cast himself as the injured party, saying he had been warned upon becoming president that the opposition was “going to go after me because they thought I represented a new direction in American politics and they thought we could make things better.
“You know,” he continued, “I didn’t come here for money or power or anything else. I came here to spend my time, to do my job, and go back to my life.”
What was most striking about this session, however, was the way the president denied untoward involvement with the former intern. He repeatedly used the present tense: “There is no improper relationship.” What does that mean? Lehrer asked. “Well, I think you know what it means,” Clinton replied. “It means that there is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship, or any other kind of improper relationship.”
This wouldn’t fly. After the session with Lehrer, press secretary Michael McCurry delicately told Clinton that people would be expecting him also to deny the Lewinsky relationship in the past tense. This escape blocked, Clinton dutifully broadened his denial in a later interview with National Public Radio’s Mara Liasson. By now, however, everyone was on high alert for weasel words. Might Clinton be invoking a narrow interpretation of “sexual relations” that included intercourse but not other kinds of intimacy? Between the PBS and NPR chats, in a telephone interview with Roll Call newspaper, questioner Morton Kondracke asked if the relationship was “in any way sexual.”
“The relationship was not sexual, “Clinton replied. “And I know what you mean and the answer is no.” Another exit closed. The sequence of interviews gave the impression of a man trapped in a room with a locked door, desperately trying to pry open the windows and finding that none of them opened either.
In the whirl of the day, Clinton had not lost his intuition about who could be told which story. To White House aide Sidney Blumenthal, who was close to the first lady, he explained, “Monica Lewinsky came at me and made a sexual demand on me.” Naturally, Clinton added, he rebuffed her: “I’ve gone down that road before, I’ve caused pain for a lot of people, and I’m not going to do that again.” Still, he had not lost his caring nature, so he continued to minister to the troubled young woman. When Blumenthal said the president simply had to cut himself off from such disturbed people, Clinton protested, “It’s very difficult for me to do that, given how I am. I want to help people.” Blumenthal later surmised that he was given this absurd invention (which was slanderous of Lewinsky) on the assumption that it would be relayed back to Hillary Clinton, since it was what the president wanted her to believe.
The president knew he could be more candid with Dick Morris. The consultant was someone Clinton always had reached for instinctually in times of crisis.
“You poor son of a bitch,” Morris said when Clinton’s voice came on the line. “I know just what you’re going through. I’ve been there.”
“Oh God,” Clinton replied. “This is just awful.”
In 1997, in the year after the consultant’s career had derailed in a sex scandal, Morris had spoken fairly regularly with the president. For the first time, he felt a personal, not just a professional connection. Morris shared details of his own spiritual awakening as he sought to battle a history of compulsive behavior. Clinton had listened attentively. What had been implicit in those earlier conversations Morris now brought in the open: “It occurred to me that I may be the only sex addict you know, and maybe I can help you.”
“Ever since I was elected,” Clinton responded, “I’ve tried to shut my body down, I mean, sexually, and sometimes I just failed. This woman, I didn’t do what they said I did, but I did do something and I don’t know if I can prove my innocence.”
Morris believed the best course for the president was to “play this thing outside the foul lines”—by which he meant going over Starr’s head to address the nation, confess error, and rely on the country’s innate sense of forgiveness. Morris volunteered to take a poll on how this would play. When the consultant called back to the White House late on the evening of the twenty-second, however, his recommendation had changed. The poll, though rudimentary because of a comparatively small sample size, showed that voters would be tolerant of sexual indiscretions but censorious toward any hint of lying under oath. Some 35 percent, indeed, thought Clinton should go to jail if he had lied. This news prompted an admirable flash of gallows humor. “You didn’t ask them about capital punishment, did you?” the president asked.
But Morris was not joking back. “They’re just too shocked by this,” he said. “It’s just too new, it’s just too raw. They’re just not ready for it.”
“Well, we just have to win then,” Clinton replied.
That flat denial, not clever evasions, would be necessary to save his presidency left him badly demoralized. On Friday afternoon, Podesta greeted Clinton in his study off the Oval Office. The president’s face was heavy and drawn, his frame almost physically deflated as he slumped in a chair. For the first time, it seemed entirely possible to Podesta that this presidency might be over. Clinton’s mood was desultory but his words blunt as he offered Podesta another denial about his relationship with Lewinsky. There had been nothing between them, no intercourse and no oral sex, Clinton insisted, describing these acts in locker-room language.
In addition to Morris (who later had to be cut loose again after he speculated in an interview that perhaps the president had strayed because his marriage was chaste), Clinton was being pressured from other directions to take a more defiant stand. Harry Thomason, the Hollywood producer and longtime friend of the first family, had watched Clinton’s interview with Lehrer in horror. The impression was one of evasion and tentativeness. The president was not acting like a man who had been wrongly accused. Thomason urged a more forceful statement. Most of the president’s political advisers, including Emanuel and Paul Begala (who had rejoined the Clinton team as White House counselor in 1997), and been pushing for the same thing, and felt it was essential to do something dramatic before the State of the Union address, or risk having the speech drowned out in a storm of speculation. The problem was that Clinton’s attorneys were sticking to the traditional legal maxim that it was best for an accused person to keep his mouth shut. The debate continued for a couple more days. The Sunday morning talk shows, in which presidential surrogates urged people not to rush to judgment but could offer no effective defense of the president, made the arguments of the political team that much more compelling. On Sunday evening, the old warrior Harold Ickes—still ready to come to the Clintons’ defense despite what he regarded as his shabby treatment by the president—flew back from a speech at his alma mater, Stanford University, and headed to the White House. In a midnight meeting in the solarium of the Executive Mansion, Ickes and Thomason persuaded Clinton that his situation was too grave to leave his fate to the lawyers. “You know,” said Thomason, “we shouldn’t wait any longer. You should make a strong statement at the first opportunity.”
There was an opportunity scheduled for the next morning. It was an appearance in the Roosevelt Room with the first lady and Vice President Gore to talk about child-care policy. At the close of his remarks, Clinton glared directly at the cameras. His jaw clenched visibly, and he pointed his fingers. “I want you to listen to me,” he ordered. “I’m going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman”—and here he paused for an instant—“Miss Lewinsky. I never told anyone to lie, not a single time—never. These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people.”
This was the performance his advisers had been hoping for, but it was not strictly a performance. His rage was real. As he finished speaking, he pivoted almost violently away from the lectern and out the door. His body was literally shaking. The one flaw in the statement had been the note of contempt conveyed by referring initially to “that woman.” It was not intentional, Clinton explained to an adviser immediately afterward: “I blanked out on her name.”