Is There A Way Out?

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NANCY GIBBS AND MICHAEL DUFFYThe way people die in caves is by going forward too fast, intowedges that trap them, rivers that drown them and mazes thatdefeat them until they give up or starve. The journey to whatBill Clinton called the rock-bottom truth feels now like aheadlong descent, a process no one can control, towardresolutions no one can assure. There are Republicans looking fortreasure down here--political power embedded for years to come.And there are Democrats looking for someone to blame. But forthe rest of us, there is too little light, too little air, nocompass, no ropes: this is not a spectator sport. We just wantsomeone to show us the way out.That message was not lost on Washington last week, which is whyover the weekend a very seasoned, fairly anxious council of WiseMen pushed hard to devise an exit strategy. The ground wasshifting so fast under their feet that some thought it might beonly a matter of days before the process passes a point of noreturn. The negotiators included some who just a week ago thoughtClinton might yet escape punishment; now their main question waswhether any compromise could head off resignation or impeachment.For all the talk of censure--a public scolding in the Well of theHouse--these men knew that they had to go further. The currencywas already devalued to the point that they needed a whole newcategory of discipline. By Saturday afternoon, censure was outand sanctions were in, which would include financialreparations for misuse of government resources during the pasteight months and a demand that Clinton settle all legal issueswith independent counsel Ken Starr, with an eye toward someadmission of wrongdoing. Among those at the table or on the phonewere White House officials, former Clinton aides Lloyd Cutler andLeon Panetta, top Democrats in Congress and their lawyers,including longtime Democratic counselor Bob Bauer. White Houseofficials carefully leaked that the President has not yet agreedto accept a deal--a time-tested signal that negotiations wereunder way and a bargaining position established.But none of that mattered unless they could get all sides to cometo the table. It is challenge enough to perfect the punishment tofit the crime but even harder to craft it in a way that satisfiesall the needs for justice from those who would have to bless it:the vengeful Republicans, the bitter Democrats, the rebelliousClinton, the righteous Ken Starr. And that wasn't very likely.The only glimmer of hope from the Republican side was coming frommoderates who were worried about a backlash against the next uglydata dump, a spectacle that was sure to get worse this week. Theparty-line vote to release the videotape of Clinton's grand jurytestimony gave Democrats their opening. Never mind thattwo-thirds of them had voted to release everything the weekbefore. The minute the Judiciary committee recessed, Democraticmembers began challenging the fairness of the proceedings becauseit was their only lever in a legal matter where the facts werenot on their side.In the days after Starr's report was released, Clinton's approvalratings actually rose--and so did his chances for being impeached.So there was no telling who would be most hurt by the next round.Much of what was offensive in the original Starr report is tamecompared with the raw material, if that's possible. This weekcomes the Complete Clinton Concordance: the videotape of hisgrand jury testimony; a transcript of Monica Lewinsky'sappearance; Clinton's deposition in the Paula Jones suit, lettersLewinsky sent to Clinton, and on and on to 2,800 pages. Tuckedinside were Monica's most graphic accounts of her sexual episodeswith the President and the effect they had on her; blessed withwhat seems like a phonographic memory, she provided Starr with avoluptuous libretto of their phone-sex encounters.PAGE 1  |    |    |    |  
 
But really graphic sex is one thing: really graphic lying isanother. As of Monday morning, any terms for any deal would benegotiated against the background music of Clinton's Augusttestimony, playing continuously on every network. It is for thismore than anything else that most voters would need to forgiveClinton, since it has much less to do with his conduct as ahusband or employer and everything to do with the conduct of hispresidency and the enforcement of the law. In the days before hisgrand jury appearance, just about every last citizen had sent hima postcard asking him to tell the truth at all costs, and mostpromised to forgive him if he did. The stakes could not have beenhigher, for this was his last chance: he could maybe brush awaylies in his Paula Jones deposition, even the bald public denialsand seven months of excruciating evasion. But by August mostAmericans had concluded that he had fooled around, made theirpeace with it and just wanted him, for once, to come clean whenhe put his hand on a Bible and faced the grand jury.And that's why what followed is so hard to excuse. It's less whathe says than how. I have not had sex with her as I defined it,Clinton told prosecutors at one point in the testimony. Asked ifhe was ever alone with Lewinsky, he said, It depends on how youdefine alone... There were a lot of times when we were alone,but I never really thought we were. Asked if his lawyer BobBennett had been correct when he assured the judge in Januarythat there is absolutely no sex of any kind, Clinton said thatwas true because it depends on what the meaning of the word 'is'is.It was just that kind of chronic weaseling that led the two topDemocrats in Congress to open the week with a primal scream. DickGephardt and Tom Daschle got together last Monday morning to warnthe White House in the most public way possible that unless theyreeled in the lawyers and stopped all this legally accuratenonsense, the road to impeachment would be short and slick. Dickand Tom went public, said a colleague, because the privatecounseling wasn't working.That doesn't mean they weren't both trying to help out. To keeptabs on his skittish members, minority leader Gephardt hasdivided the Democratic caucus into 10 groups and has been meetingwith them regularly to help lower the boil. They're all worried,but about different things: freshmen haven't had the chance tobring home pork-barrel projects; members fighting to survive inmarginal races are sifting through their polling data trying tofigure out which way to go. Safer veterans need to be bridledbefore any more of them call for Clinton's head, and members ofthe black caucus, who by and large have safe seats but greatmisgivings about the whole thing, need to be given regularopportunities to vent. To make sure members don't openlycriticize their colleagues who have to take a different path fortheir own political survival, Gephardt has been mixing andmatching members of these 10 groups so that each can understandwhat's behind the views of the others. He has made it clear thatDemocratic members are his first priority, says an attendee atone of the small meetings. The President is his second loyalty.However much Gephardt may be longing for order, his is an uphillfight. Democrats who feel that Clinton is a serial traitor to theparty, shutting them out of his budget deals with Republicans,hanging them out to dry on difficult votes, bullying them intoaccepting tax hikes and then denouncing them for it, going overtheir heads at every opportunity, are not hastening to his rescuenow. Californian Henry Waxman, a plausible candidate to supportClinton, summed up the mood: He's an embarrassment to people inhis own party. Even if it's not impeachable, no one wants todefend the President.And so by day the President went about his business, but by nighthe worked the phones, and his staff members spun round the clocktrying to keep Democratic lawmakers in line. On Tuesday, HouseDemocratic leaders met with White House aides Larry Stein, JohnPodesta and Erskine Bowles, all of whom appeared to participantsto be in shock. All they could do was to keep saying they weresorry, complained one Democratic member, and reiterate that theyunderstood what House Democrats were feeling. It was contritionby proxy. For much of the week there was no strategy, no guidanceand no evidence that the President would drop the legal argumentthat he didn't technically lie. They don't know what they'redoing, said a member bluntly.  |  2  |    |    |  
 
There was enough momentum, even before the video hit theairwaves, for the logic of resignation to penetrate Clinton'sinner circle. It's not fair, it's not right that Clinton shouldbe impeached, one longtime adviser said. It's not fair, it's notright that he should be run out of office by an independentcounsel with an unlimited purse and a partisan, moralistic bent.But what should and what will happen are two different things,said the adviser. Clinton might survive, the adviser says, butthe cost to the party and to the issues and interests for whichthe President stands would be too much to bear. He can pull itout through force of personality and circumstance, says theadviser. The problem is, even if that happens, people don't seean end, and the end they see is not a good one. One reason itwas hard for anyone to round up Democratic elders to help saveClinton was that many of them too think privately that he shouldresign.So the White House called in the one team it knew the lawmakerscould not ignore: the lobbyists and moneymen who grease thewheels of re-election. The team includes Washington's mostpersuasive operators, men who normally earn $400 an hour to bendlaws for corporate benefit. These men are themselves denizens ofthe Congress, outsiders who move easily through the ranks ofDemocrats to gather intelligence and who raise enough campaignmoney for candidates to get their attention when they need it.Deputy chief of staff John Podesta assembled the team, includingformer Clinton Hill lobbyists Howard Paster and Pat Griffin, aswell as Tommy Boggs, the king of Washington lobbyists. In regularcontact with lawmakers and their top staffs, members of thePresident's shadow lobbying enterprise are in a good position totest Clinton's fortunes. Separately, businessman Terry McAuliffe,Clinton's close friend and principal fund raiser, is known tohave phoned hundreds of Democratic financial supporters to rallysupport for the President. They, in turn, are calling in theirsupport to Democratic lawmakers. And it would be hard forlawmakers to miss the implicit message: You want my money? Wewant your vote. Or at least, hold your fire before all theevidence is in. This has been especially important with Senatorsand Congressmen in close races who are rumored to be thinking ofcalling on Clinton to resign.The prospect of Clinton's testimony and another couple ofthousand pages of pornography horrified them. I don't want tolook, says Virginia Democrat James Moran. I feel dirty when Iread this stuff. I feel as though when someone walks into theroom it's something I should throw under the desk. SouthCarolina's Ernest Hollings told fellow Senator Joseph Biden:Joe, I can't even talk about this with another man.And that is just among Democrats. The possibility of judicious,bipartisan proceedings dissolved when Republicans accused thePresident's allies of declaring open season on anyone whopresumed to sit in judgment of him. The disclosure of ChairmanHenry Hyde's adultery of 30 years past in the online magazineSalon represented a knife in the heart of compromise. The HouseG.O.P. leadership fired off a letter to the FBI asking it toinvestigate the White House for trying to intimidate lawmakers,without being able to prove it was behind it. The White House putout frantic calls to its Hill Democrats trying to assure themthat it hadn't leaked the story--Podesta called Hyde himself--butas spokesman Mike McCurry admitted, the perception in Washingtonis that the White House lies about everything; our credibilityis zero.The prospect of total war, with all its collateral damage, wasenough to bring some of the leaders up short. By Thursdayafternoon top Democrats began working secretly on the escape planthat would force the President to accept some severe punishmentshort of impeachment, in return for some protection againstprosecution once he leaves office. Selling that deal would haveto involve the help of the permanent graybeards on both sides--menlike Bob Dole, who has put in a call to Clinton already, BobStrauss, Colin Powell, George Mitchell--men who have the moralhorsepower to haul their crankier colleagues along.It is already clear that Republicans will not accept anypunishment that does not inflict some pain and suffering: Clintonwould have to apologize once more, probably in the Well of theHouse or somewhere on Congress's turf; admit that he lied underoath, caused the nation, the government and the polity greatdamage; pledge to fix it with specific bipartisan proposals.But it would not stop there: it is no use letting the Presidentremain in office if the government can't function with him there.So a thorough housecleaning would have to come next. Republicansmay demand that anyone found to have leaked damaging materialabout Hyde or other lawmakers be fired. Or Clinton may have to dosomething really hard: ask for the resignation of the fixers, theenablers, people who have served him most faithfully, like hislongtime confidant Bruce Lindsey.  |    |  3  |    |  
 
Finally, to run the Clinton Regency, the White House would needto draw back into action a blue-chip crew comparable to the oneenlisted by Ronald Reagan to save his presidency afterIran-contra in 1986. As Powell, Howard Baker, Frank Carlucci andKen Duberstein did then, the presence of Democratic veterans suchas Leon Panetta in a return engagement, George Mitchell,Republican Pentagon chief William Cohen, perhaps outgoing FloridaGovernor Lawton Chiles would reassure the nation and Congressthat the President is running a grownup shop, not a frat house ora cathouse, and would have their help in doing the nation'sbusiness.Clinton needs two things in exchange. He gets to keep his job,and he gets immunity from prosecution. One person involved in theweekend maneuvers ruled out any deal that left the President inlegal, criminal jeopardy. Clinton will never confess as long asStarr keeps his two grand juries in session and refuses to ruleout prosecuting Clinton once he leaves office.But persuading Starr to back off is no mean challenge. ThePresident and his aides have been attacking the prosecutor foryears. Clinton's lawyer David Kendall persuaded a federal judgeto launch two investigations into whether Starr leaked grand juryevidence to reporters. One way Kendall could extend the olivebranch to Starr: drop the complaint.If Starr cannot be persuaded to sanction a deal, there are twoways around him--one short, one much longer. Congress could grantClinton immunity from prosecution in exchange for a deal. Suchprotections have gone before to people like Oliver North inexchange for their cooperation. Starr might not like thatoutcome, but there wouldn't be much he could do about it. OrClinton might be persuaded to take his chances in court afterleaving office, betting that any jury would feel that he hadalready paid his debt. If he is lucky, if he has not completelyexhausted the country's reserves of compassion and patience, hemay even get a chance to vindicate the choice made by those whoare willing to show him some mercy.At this crucial moment it is not clear that anyone with staturealso has the means and the will to nail down a deal. Early lastweek Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, a friend of Starr's, tried to laythe foundation; he spent 20 minutes on the phone with Clinton,and though he didn't speak to Starr, has a good sense of how theguy ticks. Hatch imagined that the country might be spared ayear of unnecessary public hanging if Clinton confessed morepublicly and contritely than before, if the House agreed to acensure, and if Starr could somehow be compelled to bless thedeal. But this attempt at arbitration did not go far beforeHatch's more conservative Senate colleagues rebuked him inprivate for his attempt at peacemaking. Though there isconsiderable risk of reprisal from his own party, Hatch says hewon't stop trying.Hyde and Speaker Gingrich have it within their power to call atruce, but that's not in their interest. The problem here is thateverything is already going their way: Republicans now talk ofwinning 15 to 20 new seats in November, a prospect that has thefaithful and the financiers wanting to barbecue Clinton for atleast a few more weeks. The party's social-conservative flank,meanwhile, is opposed to mercy on ideological grounds, determinedthat the President must be spanked and spanked hard. But if theG.O.P. drags Clinton's carcass around the arena too many moretimes, the favorable trend in the polls will come to an abrupthalt. And so the Speaker sits tight, sounding statesmanlike,careful not to overplay his hand. If the release of the videotapedoesn't backfire this week, all he has to do is hang on throughElection Day, betting that a bigger margin in the House next yearwill give him more leverage with the President's lawyers afterNovember.Even if the Wise Men can agree on a deal, they still have to sellit to the man it is designed to save. There is no visibleevidence that Clinton has learned much from all this, other thanthe need to demonstrate conspicuously that he has learnedsomething from it. Like any negotiator, he won't give up anythingnow that he can use later to extract concessions. He has stoppedtelling his friends that a censure deal is out of the question.He may drop the legal jitterbugging, but he's not ready to admitthat he lied in either of his testimonies. That can come later.Why should he give up perjury now if that's where we want to endup? said one presidential associate.  |    |    |  4  |  
 
For all the moist apologies of the past month, Clinton's conductis a more reliable measure of his mood than his shadedconfessions. He has argued that his actions are good for ourchildren, as he sets an example on seeking forgiveness, good forour families and, most recently, good for his party. As he tolddonors at a Democratic dinner in New York City, Democrats shouldbe grateful for his disgrace, because adversity is good forturnout and fund raising. Most important, he is still torturingthe language and the law. As a White House aide explains it, heknew what he was doing, and not doing, with Monica, and feelsthat he acted, and answered, so that he was indeed legallyaccurate. He will go to his grave believing he didn't perjurehimself, says the aide.Anyone hoping to persuade Clinton to change his legal strategyhad to get past David Kendall first, and last week there was noshortage of people out for his hide. Some Clinton allies werearguing that Kendall's advice has been a disaster: if thePresident was going to keep stonewalling, he should never havegone before that grand jury in the first place; if he absolutelyhad to testify, Kendall should never have let it be videotaped.And once all those steps had been taken, the last thing Kendallshould have done was go before reporters and try to explain thePresident's testimony to them, as he did two weeks ago.But Kendall defenders note that he is the only person who has tofocus exclusively on the client's legal jeopardy--and that clientis himself a lawyer who likes to overrule his advisers. Clinton'schoice of Kendall was a sign that he would never be takenprisoner. Kendall's firm, Williams & Connolly, prides itself onpracticing Green Beret law. The firm's founder Edward BennettWilliams used to say that in life, every effort is marked downat the end as a win or a loss. Williams called it contestliving.That whole attitude does not leave much room for compromise.Within the White House, these are not days of wise judgment andthoughtful debate. It is clear to those close to him thatClinton's game is gone, his instincts dead, his psychologicalstate a mystery. He is fearful, unsure of what to do, unable toanswer questions about resignation with anything like his earlierconviction. Meetings with his Cabinet and lawmakers have goneuncharacteristically badly.Even if staff members weren't so distracted, it would still behard to put together a plausible strategy for dealing withCongress for the next six weeks, as both sides try to agree onhow to spend about a trillion dollars next year. Clinton vowedthat any budget surplus should be devoted to saving SocialSecurity first, and so he ruled out any new farm aid. Buteverything is negotiable now. It's cash and carry, as oneDemocratic lobbyist put it. So when potential supporters comeasking for money, Clinton is not in a very strong position tobargain--and that's even with members of his own party.And above all, the White House has little understanding of themotives and moods that are now driving decisions on Capitol Hill.Clinton is drunk on the polls, without knowing how littlesustenance they bring. With six weeks to go before the elections,lawmakers do not care what 270 million Americans are saying aboutkeeping Clinton in office, they care what a majority of theroughly 75,000 likely voters in their particular districts aresaying. They care about the 30 to 40 House races and 10 Senateseats that are up for grabs. They care about who takes control ofthe legislatures that will redraw the congressional districts inways that could keep the Democrats out of power for a generation.Every other day, the White House runs up to the Hill with a newpoll showing that voters overwhelmingly favor the President'sagenda, that they don't care about his sex life and that theydon't want him to leave office. But you can hardly blameDemocrats for being unconvinced that any of this matters to them.About a million gallons of toxic waste have been dumped on thesoil, says a senior Democratic aide on Capitol Hill. Yeah,you're measuring the groundwater right now, but that stuff'sseeping in.Even before the release of the Clinton videotape and its endlesscompanion volumes, the prospect of an impeachment inquiry hadbecome all but certain, and once the process happens, evenDemocratic elders predict, Clinton faces a 75% chance that hewill be impeached by the full House and put on trial in theSenate. Now, they warn, the shape of the deal will be changingwith each day that passes. He still has a chance of beingsanctioned in exchange for immunity. But as this drags out, theprice of immunity goes up, Republicans say. Already, theno-quarter wing has said that protection can be exchanged forone thing only: resignation.  |    |    |    |  5