High Crimes? Or Just a Sex Cover-Up?

  • Share
  • Read Later
ERIC POOLEYI feel like a character in a novel, Bill Clinton told an aideon the day the Lewinsky scandal broke. With equal partsself-pity and deceit, the President cast himself as theprotagonist in Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler's 1941 classicabout the victim of a totalitarian witch-hunt. Eight monthslater, in the pages of Kenneth Starr's report to Congress,Clinton finds himself the villain in a much trashier tale, afetid blend of libido and legalese that reads like JackieCollins by way of the Congressional Quarterly.In the course of flirting with him, she raised her jacket inthe back and showed him the straps of her thong underwear, whichextended above her pants, the report says, describing Clintonand Monica Lewinsky's first encounter, on Nov. 15, 1995. Laterthat night, according to her testimony, she and the Presidentkissed. She unbuttoned her jacket; either she unhooked her braor he lifted her bra up; and he touched her breasts with hishands and mouth. Then he took a call from a Congressman whileshe performed oral sex on him.As numbing and repetitive as any porn, the narrative is clinicaland sad, a recitation of furtive gropings and panickyzipping-ups between two profoundly needy people, one of whomhappened to be the leader of the free world. While Clinton'slawyers thunder that the endless tawdry details serve no purposebut to humiliate the President and force him from office,Starr argues that Clinton himself made them necessary. Starr'soffice had originally planned to confine the seamier material toa secret sex appendix, a Starr ally told TIME. But because thePresident lied so long and hard, the report maintains, Starr hadno choice but to include the particulars that proved that,despite Clinton's parsing of the term and even by the tortuousdefinition used in the Paula Jones deposition, Clinton andLewinsky had sex, and Clinton lied to cover it up.No one outside the White House will be quibbling there, thanksto Lewinsky's phenomenal memory and careful record keeping.Awestruck and infatuated though she may have been, Lewinsky wasa cool and precise recorder of every moment she spent withClinton--what they said and did, which Secret Service agentswere warily watching them come and go, which aides were shootingdaggers at her outside the Oval Office, which phone callsClinton took during their time together. The narrative relies onLewinsky's testimony for the particulars of 10 alleged sexualencounters, but to bolster her credibility--she did, after all,perjure herself in her Jones affidavit and cooperated with Starrin exchange for immunity--the report time and again uses WhiteHouse records and contemporaneous accounts to corroborate herstories. Lewinsky remembers being with Clinton on President'sDay 1996, when he spoke to a Florida sugar grower namedsomething like Fanuli. Phone logs show Clinton spoke to sugarbaron Alfonso Fanjul that day. Lewinsky says that during threesexual encounters, Clinton was on the phone with Congressmen;during another, he took a call from his disgraced consultantDick Morris; in each case, phone logs bear out her account.(Lewinsky says she was performing a sex act on Clinton while hespoke to Alabama Representative Sonny Callahan. The lawmaker,aghast, says they were discussing American troops in Bosnia.)The report paints a vivid and baffling picture of therelationship. Though Clinton told the grand jury in August thatwhat began as a friendship came to include [sex], byLewinsky's account the reverse was true: the relationship beganwith hallway flirtation and escalated rapidly to sex (usuallyoral, never vaginal intercourse, and rarely brought tocompletion because Clinton, Lewinsky said, did not know herwell enough). After five sexual encounters, Lewinsky complainedto Clinton that they never talked--Is this just about sex, ordo you have some interest in trying to get to know me as aperson?--and after the sixth, on Feb. 4, 1996, they spent 45min. chatting in the Oval Office. Then, Lewinsky says, theemotional and friendship aspects began to develop. They talkedabout their childhoods, and Clinton told her she made him feelyoung again; Lewinsky dreamed of being by his side full timeafter his presidency. They exchanged 48 gifts and had some 50phone conversations with each other--warm chats, bitterarguments and some 17 late-night phone-sex sessions thatLewinsky says Clinton initiated. Monica sent him an eroticpostcard, with a note detailing her ideas about education reform.PAGE 1  |    |    |    |  
 
The relationship was facilitated by Betty Currie, Clinton'sprivate secretary, a motherly, church going woman who acted asgo-between: setting up meetings for Clinton and Lewinsky,connecting them by telephone but not always logging the calls,passing Lewinsky's letters and parcels to him unopened, findingways to get her into the White House past hostile presidentialaides and even coming to the White House on weekends just toescort Lewinsky to the President. Currie had her suspicions, atthe very least, but tried hard to stay in the dark. Lewinskyonce told her that if no one saw Monica and Clinton together,then nothing had happened. Don't want to hear it, Curriereplied, according to Lewinsky. Don't say any more. I don'twant to hear any more.Currie was the perfect assistant to a man who had beenconcealing sex for decades. Starr alleges no fewer than fiveClinton perjuries in the Jones deposition on the issue ofwhether the President and Lewinsky had a sexual affair, threemore in Clinton's Aug. 17 grand-jury testimony (claiming, forexample, that he hadn't touched Lewinsky's breasts or genitals)and one lie in his televised statement to the American peoplethat night, when he said his Jones testimony had been legallyaccurate. The President, Starr also alleges, lied when heclaimed he couldn't recall being alone with Lewinsky, lied whenhe said he hadn't discussed her Jones affidavit with her, liedwhen he said he hadn't helped her find a job. Since perjury isexceptionally difficult to prove--especially when the witness isas skilled at evasion as Clinton--it is questionable whether anyof these misleading statements could be grounds for impeachment,as the prosecutor claims. And there is reason to recoil at someof Starr's tactics; he included far more sexual detail than wasnecessary to prove his point, and at times ignored or discountedevidence that contradicts his case. Still, many Americans--eventhose who have long assumed Clinton was lying--will be appalledby the depths of the President's recklessness and deceit. Otherswill say, Tell us something we didn't know.So Starr tells them. After the initial shock wears off, readersmay find the most damaging sections of the report to be not thesalacious details that demonstrate Clinton's deceit but ratherthe staggeringly detailed account of the cover-up effort hedirected: a campaign to avoid discovery that, Starr alleges,amounts to abusing the powers of the office to stymie Starr'sinvestigation. Though the outlines of the story have long sincebeen told in press accounts, the report offers scores of damningnew details that drive home the truth of a 25-year-old cliche:the cover-up is worse than the crime.Most accounts have dated Clinton's alleged scheme to buyLewinsky's silence by finding her a New York job to the fall of1997, when she was named as a possible witness in the Jonessuit. But the report demonstrates that its roots went back muchfurther. By early spring of that year, according to the report,Clinton began focusing on the threat Lewinsky represented,asking her whether she had told her mother, Marcia Lewis, of theaffair. Word of the relationship had leaked to Lewis' friend,Walter Kaye, who mentioned it to White House aide Marsha Scott.Not long after that, Lewinsky received an invitation from BettyCurrie to visit the President. On Saturday, May 24, Clinton toldLewinsky he wanted to break off the affair. The President noted,she testified, that he could do a great deal for her.Three days later, the Supreme Court ruled that the Jones casecould proceed during Clinton's term. Soon after that decision,Jones' lawyers announced they would try to find other femalesubordinates who had been approached sexually by Clinton. Thatgave him an even stronger motive for helping Lewinsky. Thereport details a truly extraordinary job search on her behalf,one driven in part by Lewinsky's extortionate demands. Clintoninstructed Currie and Scott to find Lewinsky another White Housejob after she had been exiled to the Pentagon. Currie arguedagainst it because she felt Lewinsky was a little bit pushy,but Clinton, Currie testified, was pushing us hard. She saidit was the only time he had ever pressed her to find someone aWhite House job.When nothing opened for Lewinsky, she vented her frustration ina July 3 letter to Clinton. If she wasn't going to return to theWhite House, she wrote, she would need to explain to my parentsexactly why that wasn't happening. She then suggested that hehelp get her a job at the U.N.The next day he called her back to the Oval Office. ThePresident berated her for threatening him, but the visit endedaffectionately, with Clinton saying he wished he had more timefor her and suggesting that after his term was up, he might bealone.By autumn, the stakes were rising for Clinton. On Oct. 1, hereceived interrogatories from Jones' lawyers asking for a listof women other than his wife with whom he had sought to havesexual relations. Six days later, Lewinsky sent the Presidentanother letter complaining about her stalled job search. She wascooling on the U.N. idea now and wanted Clinton to help her geta job in the private sector. After 2 a.m. on Oct. 10, the reportsays, Clinton called Lewinsky and unloaded on her: If I hadknown what kind of person you really were, I never would havegotten involved with you, he told her. She complained that hehad not done enough to help her. Clinton said he was eager tohelp. She told him she wanted a job in New York City by the endof October, and he promised to try.  |  2  |    |    |  
 
The next day, a Saturday, she was invited for a visit withClinton, according to the report. They met in the study anddiscussed jobs. He told her to prepare a list of New Yorkcompanies she wanted to work for. She suggested that thehyperconnected lawyer Vernon Jordan might help. Clinton wasreceptive. He also told her that he had asked White House chiefof staff Erskine Bowles to get her old boss, legislative affairsdirector John Hilley, to write a recommendation.On Oct. 16, Lewinsky sent Clinton a wish list of jobs she'dlike in New York. Later that fall, U.N. ambassador BillRichardson decided to interview the former intern in Washington.The night before the meeting, she says, Clinton called to boosther confidence. Eventually, Richardson offered her a job. Sheturned it down.It fell to Jordan to find the right job. In his testimony, heclaimed to have received assurances from Lewinsky and Clintonthat there was no sex. But Lewinsky testified that Jordan knewwith a wink and a nod that I was having a relationship with thePresident. Just after the Oct. 11 meeting in which Monicasuggested to Clinton that Jordan help her find a job, Clintonspoke to him by phone. Clinton has testified that it was Curriewho brought Jordan into the effort. But Lewinsky testified thatCurrie called Jordan at the President's initiative. Jordan, whomet Lewinsky in November, said he assumed the same.Jordan moved slowly at first; he had no contact with Lewinskyfor more than a month. But by Dec. 6, Clinton had even morereason to placate the woman: his lawyers showed him a list ofwitnesses the Jones team was planning to call. Among them wasLewinsky. On Sunday, Dec. 7, Jordan met with the President atthe White House. Jordan denied that Lewinsky or the Jones casewas discussed, but four days later he was meeting with Lewinskyfor the second time, giving her the names of three businesscontacts. Later that day he called three executives to recommendher.In that meeting, Jordan got a clue, if he needed one, thatLewinsky was more than an acquaintance of Clinton's. She saidshe got angry at Clinton when he doesn't call me enough or seeme enough. Lewinsky says he told her to take her frustrationsout on him rather than on Clinton. You're in love, that's whatyour problem is, he said. After the meeting, Jordan says, hecalled Clinton and told him that he would try to get Lewinsky ajob in New York.The President was now devoting a lot of attention to the Monicaproblem. After 2 a.m. on Dec. 17, he called her at home and toldher she was on the witness list. According to Lewinsky, he toldher that it broke his heart to see her listed. But if she weresubpoenaed, he said, she could sign an affidavit to try tosatisfy the inquiry and not be deposed. He also went over whatLewinsky calls one of the cover stories they had discussed asthe affair unfolded: her frequent visits to the White House wereto see her friend Currie. Starr calls this a case of subornationof perjury. Clinton testified that he didn't recall saying it.Over the next couple of days, the twin worries of affidavit andjob only grew. So did Jordan's role. On Dec. 18 and 23, Lewinskyinterviewed at two New York firms contacted by Jordan. On Dec.19, she was served with a subpoena to testify in the Jones case.On Dec. 22, Jordan took Lewinsky to her new attorney, and thetwo discussed her job prospects, the subpoena and the Jones caseduring the ride in his limousine.For a man who claimed to see no connection between jobs andaffidavit, Jordan was at the intersection of both. Immediatelyafter she was subpoenaed, on Dec. 19, Lewinsky called Jordan,who invited her to his office. Ten minutes after she arrived, hereceived a call from Clinton and spoke for four minutes. Aminute later, he called the attorney he had chosen for Lewinsky,Francis Carter. Monica gave Jordan more reason to suspect anaffair at that meeting when she asked him about the future ofthe Clintons' marriage. Concerned that she seemed mesmerizedby Clinton, Jordan says, he asked if there was a sexualrelationship. She denied it--but told the grand jury she thoughtJordan knew of the affair and was asking her not what hadhappened but what she would tell Paula Jones' lawyers. Jordansaid he took her reply literally. When he met with Clinton thatnight, Jordan testified, he asked him if there was a sexualrelationship. Jordan says the President replied, No, never.Three days later, when Jordan escorted Lewinsky to Carter'soffice, he was again confronted with the true nature of therelationship. She told him she was worried about someone'seavesdropping on her phone calls with Clinton, which would be aproblem because we've had phone sex. At the same time, shesays, she showed him gifts Clinton had given her. (Jordan deniedit.)  |    |  3  |    |  
 
Lewinsky was getting worried about all those gifts--souvenirsfrom Martha's Vineyard, a special edition of Leaves of Grass.She testified that on Dec. 28, during an early-morning meetingwith Clinton at the White House, she asked him if she shouldput the gifts away outside my house somewhere or give them tosomeone, maybe Betty. Clinton responded, I don't know or Letme think about that. Later that day Currie called Monica andsaid, according to Lewinsky, either I understand you havesomething to give me or The President said you have somethingto give me. Currie then went to Lewinsky's apartment, took abox of gifts and hid them under her own bed. She later gave themto Starr.The prosecutor labels this obstruction of justice byClinton--concealing the truth by concealing the gifts. ButCurrie's testimony disputes Lewinsky on the key question of whoinitiated the call. Currie said Monica called her first andasked her to take the gifts. Currie testified that she didn'tremember talking to the President about the gifts before orafter she fetched them from Lewinsky, which raises the question,What would have motivated Currie to act on her own initiative?Still, the White House notes that Starr's report relies onLewinsky's version of events as accurate and dismisses Currie'scontradictory testimony, even though Lewinsky is an admittedperjurer and Currie is not.Three days after Currie collected the gifts, Jordan allegedlycaused the destruction of other evidence linking Lewinsky toClinton. According to the report, at a Dec. 31 breakfast meetingbetween Jordan and Lewinsky, she told him that Linda Tripp mighthave seen drafts of highly charged notes she had written thePresident. Go home and make sure they're not there, Jordanallegedly told her. When Lewinsky returned home that day, shesays, she threw out some 50 draft notes to Clinton.The report suggests an active role by Clinton in creatingLewinsky's affidavit denying a sexual relationship. He hadsuggested the affidavit in the first place, and though Lewinskysays he never explicitly asked her to lie, they had oftendiscussed keeping their relationship secret. As Lewinsky toldLinda Tripp in a recorded conversation, I don't think he thinksof [it as] lying under oath... He thinks of it as...'We're beingsmart; we're being safe; it's good for everybody.' Jordantestified that Clinton was concerned about the affidavit andwhether it was signed or not, and he had kept up a continuingdialogue with Clinton on the matter. Phone records for Jan. 6,for example, show Jordan in contact with the White House twice,Lewinsky three times and her attorney Carter four times. In oneflurry, Jordan called the President less than 30 minutes afterspeaking with Lewinsky and then called Carter immediately afterthat.On Jan. 7, Lewinsky signed the affidavit and brought a copy toshow Jordan. He placed three long calls to the White House thatday in which he told the President, according to his testimony,that she had signed the affidavit and that he was continuing towork on getting her a job. In both cases, Jordan testified, thePresident said, Good.The next day Jordan applied a little of what he calls theJordan magic to close the deal on Lewinsky's job. On that dayLewinsky interviewed in New York City with a top executive ofMacAndrews & Forbes Holdings Inc., billionaire Ron Perelman'sumbrella company, but the executive decided she was unsuited forany opening. (Jordan is on the board of Revlon, a MacAndrewssubsidiary.) Lewinsky reported to Jordan that the interview wentvery poorly. So Jordan called Perelman. I have spent a goodpart of my life learning institutions and people, and in thatprocess, I have learned how to make things happen, he explainedto the grand jury. And the call to Ronald Perelman was a callto make things happen, if they could happen. (He also madethree calls to the White House that day.) According to Perelman,Jordan touted Lewinsky as a bright young girl who I think isterrific. It was the first time in the 12 years Jordan hadserved as a Revlon director that he had called to recommendsomeone for a job.By the end of the day, Revlon called Lewinsky for an interview.On Jan. 9, she met with one executive from MacAndrews and twofrom Revlon. Within hours, Lewinsky was informally offered ajob. She informally accepted and reported the news to Jordan. Heimmediately informed Currie and Clinton: Mission accomplished.But Lewinsky still needed references, and Clinton reached downinto the White House staff to make sure Lewinsky would get afavorable one. In the end, Revlon withdrew the job offer afterthe scandal broke.During his Jones deposition on Jan. 17, Clinton was barragedwith questions about Lewinsky. After the interrogation wasfinished, he called Currie and summoned her to the White Housethe following day, a Sunday. In the meeting, Currie testified,Clinton made a series of statements about himself and Lewinsky.You were always there when she was there, right? We were neverreally alone. Monica came on to me, and I never touched her,right?  |    |    |  4  |  
 
None of them were right, but Currie felt the President wantedher to agree with them, the report says. Starr charges thatClinton, worried Currie might be called for a deposition, wasengaging in witness tampering. Clinton lawyer David Kendallrejects the charge, arguing that Currie was not a witness in anyproceeding at the time (she was never called in the Jonesmatter). Clinton, in his August grand-jury testimony, concededthat Currie may have felt some ambivalence about how to reactto his words. He said he had always tried to prevent her fromlearning of the affair. [I] did what people do when they do thewrong thing, he said. I tried to do it where nobody else waslooking at it.Three days later the scandal broke. That day Clinton got a callfrom Dick Morris, his longtime consultant, who'd resigned indisgrace amid his own sex scandal in 1996. You poor son of ab____, Morris said consolingly. The consultant testified thathe assured the President that there's a great capacity forforgiveness in this country, and you should consider tappinginto it.But what about the legal thing? Morris says Clinton replied.You know, Starr and perjury and all? Clinton had alreadydenied the affair in his Jones deposition, but, Morris says, thePresident admitted to him that with this girl I just slipped up.Morris says he took a poll on the voters' willingness to forgiveconfessed adultery. He phoned back a few hours later to tellClinton that voters would forgive adultery but not perjury orobstruction of justice. In other words, it was already toolate. Morris testified that Clinton said, Well, we just have towin then.So the President denied the affair on television and inone-on-one conversations with aides who, perhaps believing thelie, repeated it endlessly when spinning the press andtestifying before the grand jury. He used the power of theExecutive Branch--the White House megaphone and the counsel'soffice--to attack Starr and impede his investigation with aseries of privilege claims that were rejected by the courts.Through such tactics, the independent counsel's report claims,Clinton abused his constitutional authority.The charge echoes the second article of impeachment passed bythe House in 1974, the one that charged Richard Nixon withabuse of power. That count, an especially eloquent andsorrowful passage in the impeachment record, accused Nixon of nospecific crime but rather of acting in a manner contrary to histrust as President and subversive of constitutional government,to the great prejudice of the cause of law and justice and tothe manifest injury of the people of the United States. Suchabuse of power goes to the heart of the framers' conception ofhigh crimes and misdemeanors, by which they meant offensesagainst the state and injuries to the Republic itself. DoesClinton's conduct reach that level?Anyone with children may easily say yes. Yet clearly, nothingClinton did sinks to the depths of what Nixon did, such as usingthe IRS to hound opponents and dispatching the CIA to thwart anFBI investigation. The claim that Clinton abused the counsel'soffice by invoking privilege claims is nonsense, said WhiteHouse counsel Charles Ruff, a respected former Watergateprosecutor and U.S. Attorney. He did so on my advice. I went tothe President and said the independent counsel is seeking tointrude into the legitimate, confidential discussions you havewith your lawyers and that your senior staff have amongthemselves. It is your obligation as the President to protectthe core constitutional interests of the presidency.Some constitutional scholars argue that Clinton's more frivolousprivilege claims injured the presidency, because Supreme Courtrejection of the claims narrowed the circle of confidants anyPresident can count on. But whatever the merits of the ploy, itis to Nixonian abuse as the Berkshires are to the Rockies.What's more, Clinton's entire campaign of lies and obstructionsin 1998 was designed to combat an investigation thatClinton--and many other Americans--viewed as fundamentallyillegitimate. The only justification for Starr's probe of theLewinsky affair--the reason Janet Reno authorized it--was analleged pattern of obstruction that Starr said stretched back tothe Whitewater case.Starr believes that Jordan and other Clinton pals steered some$540,000 in consultant contracts to former Associate AttorneyGeneral Webster Hubbell in exchange for his silence about anArkansas land deal Starr was investigating. Starr saw the samepattern in Jordan's attempts to steer Lewinsky into a job. ButHubbell is barely mentioned in Starr's report. The independentcounsel repeats the Hubbell allegation but does not explore it,or any other aspect of Whitewater. (Starr says he has notdecided what steps to take, if any, in referring any othermatters to Congress.) The report is also silent on Travelgateand the White House's alleged misuse of fbi files, implying thatno impeachable offenses have been uncovered in those matters. AsClinton's defenders like to say, Starr spent four years and $40million trying to prove substantive presidential wrongdoing,came up dry, and then used Linda Tripp's tapes to set a trap tocatch the President in sordid personal behavior. Clinton'sobstruction of justice--shameful though it may havebeen--amounted to trying to wriggle out of that trap.Ken Starr's report, though lacking the balance of Watergateindependent counsel Leon Jaworski's effort 24 years ago, doesone thing quite clearly: it offers a portrayal of a Presidentwho seems cunning but emotionally vacant, a man wasting histalents and powers on an empty affair with a woman who was inmany ways still a child. Public revulsion may yet drive Clintonfrom office--not because he has been proved a Nixonian crook butbecause he has been proved an X-rated cartoon.  |    |    |    |  5