Hillary Rodham Clinton looked miserable. Her hair was pulled back, her face clear of any makeup, her eyes ringed red and puffy in that way that suggested she had been crying. She stared vacantly across the room. The people who had surrounded her and her husband for the past seven years had never seen her like this. Even in private, she was always perfectly poised, immaculately coiffed, impeccably dressed, and inalterably in control. Now, however, she appeared to have been to hell and back. To see her like this, thought some of the longtime Clinton loyalists who had rushed back to the White House to help in weathering the worst crisis of her husband's presidency, it seemed as if someone had died.
When one of her husband's original political advisers, James Carville, arrived in the Solarium on the third floor of the White House, summoned back overnight from Brazil at her request, Hillary rushed over to him, clutched his hand, and sat him down next to her.
"You just have to help us get through this," she said. "I don't know how we can get through this."
Neither did anyone else. At that moment, on the afternoon of Monday, August 17, 1998, President Clinton was three floors below them, facing off against Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr in the Map Room of the White House and testifying via closed-circuit television to a federal grand jury about his relationship with a young former intern named Monica Samille Lewinsky and his efforts to cover it up during the sexual-harassment lawsuit filed against him by former Arkansas state clerk Paula Jones. Forced by incontrovertible DNA evidence, Clinton was admitting after seven months of adamant denials that he had fooled around with a woman less than half his age in a private hallway and cubbyhole just off the Oval Office, and he would have to tell the nation later that night. It was not an easy confession to make. Indeed, Clinton had not been able to bring himself to break the news to his own wife. Four nights before, he had sent his lawyer to pave the way for him.
It had to have been the longest walk of David E. Kendall's life, the journey that night, Thursday, August 13, to the residential part of the executive mansion where he had met with the first lady. Kendall, a fastidious yet tough-as-nails attorney from the blue-chip Washington law firm of Williams & Connolly, had represented both Clintons for five years now through every manner of alleged scandal, from Whitewater to Travelgate to Filegate, becoming one of their most trusted confidants. And so it fell to him at that critical moment to play emissary from husband to wife, to disclose the most awful secret of any marriage.
Something had obviously gone on between the president and Lewinsky, Kendall had told the first lady in his soft, understated way. The president was going to have to tell the grand jury about it. Only after Kendall laid the foundation did Clinton speak directly with his wife.
Over the weekend it became clear to others in the White House that the president was about to change his story, and reports citing unnamed sources began appearing in the press, first in the New York Times and later the Washington Post. Clinton's political advisers began preparing for the inevitable national television address he would have to give to explain himself. Mickey Kantor, a longtime friend who had served as his commerce secretary and now as occasional damage-control adviser, was pushing to have Clinton preempt Starr by addressing the nation on Sunday evening, the night before his grand jury appearance. The lawyers were horrified. A witness never spoke publicly before undergoing an interrogation under oath, they argued; that would only give the prosecution ammunition and possibly aggravate the grand jurors.
No, it had to be Monday night after the session, or perhaps the next morning, depending on how Clinton felt afterward. With the timing settled, the real question then came down to what should be said and how. Everyone agreed that Paul Begala, Carville's spirited and tart-tongued former partner who had come on board at the White House as a free-floating political adviser, would be in charge of putting together a speech for the president, even though no one had told him officially what Clinton would tell the grand jury. The consensus was that Begala would have the best feel for the delicate job. Begala solicited a draft from Robert Shrum, the longtime Kennedy family adviser and wordsmith, who faxed it over to the White House. In this version, Clinton would say, "I have fallen short of what you should expect from a president. I have failed my own religious faith and values. I have let too many people down. I take full responsibility for my actions -- for hurting my wife and daughter, for hurting Monica Lewinsky and her family, for hurting friends and staff, and for hurting the country I love." While he would maintain that he "did nothing to obstruct this investigation," he would not mince words in saying he was sorry. "Finally, I also want to apologize to all of you, my fellow citizens," he would say. "I hope you can find it in your heart to accept that apology." That would be it. No rationalization. No nimble word games. And no mention of Starr.
As they studied the Shrum text, Begala and the other Clinton aides concluded that it would be too groveling. After all, Clinton was still the president and needed to avoid appearing weak to the nation's enemies. Neither Begala nor most of the other White House advisers working on the draft realized just how timely that concern was, not having been told about secret plans to launch air strikes within days against terrorists blamed for recent bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa.
Begala spent the weekend coming up with his own passages and phrases intended to have Clinton express his contrition without sacrificing his dignity or antagonizing Starr. In Begala's draft, the president would frankly acknowledge that he had misled the country, would take responsibility for his actions, and would pledge to spend the rest of his administration working on the issues the public cared about to regain the nation's trust. On Saturday night, Begala called up a fellow White House political adviser, Rahm Emanuel, at home and read him the latest draft. Emanuel agreed it was the way to go.
Others sent drafts too. Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who worked for many Democratic congressmen, was asked to sketch out some thoughts. Sidney Blumenthal, a fiercely partisan defender of the Clintons first as a journalist for The New Yorker and then as a member of their staff, faxed in versions from vacation in Europe that would have the president firmly denounce Starr's politically motivated witch-hunt. But the only draft that counted was the one the president scratched out in his own left-handed scrawl on a yellow legal pad over the weekend. On Monday morning, as Clinton was going through his final preparation session with his lawyers, Kantor arrived at a strategy meeting in the office of White House counsel Charles F. C. Ruff, clutching three pages of now-typed remarks, with more notes from Clinton in the margins.
"I've got what he wants to say," Kantor announced.
There was groaning around the room, where most of the president's political team had gathered, including Begala, Emanuel, Deputy Chief of Staff John D. Podesta, counselor Douglas B. Sosnik, and press secretary Michael D. McCurry. They were flabbergasted. Begala had his latest draft in his coat pocket. When had Clinton had time to write his own speech? Between the long hours of preparations with his lawyers, dealing with his own tortured family situation, and secretly overseeing plans for retaliation against terrorist Osama bin Laden, the president hardly had a lot of free moments. The group decided to have Begala go over the new draft, but it became clear immediately that it was too strident.
Across the building, Clinton was huddling in the Solarium with Kendall and his partner, Nicole K. Seligman, to go over one last time what he would tell the grand jury. Neither Chuck Ruff nor any of the other White House lawyers was allowed to attend because Starr had already shown that they did not have complete attorney-client privilege as lawyers for the government, so it was left entirely to the president's privately paid legal team. Knowing that Starr had a sample of his blood to compare with a semen stain on a navy blue Gap dress Lewinsky had saved, Clinton recognized he had no choice but to admit the obvious, but he refused to use the actual words. Starr's office had insisted on videotaping the session, ostensibly in case one of the grand jurors was absent, and Clinton had no doubt that the tape would ultimately find its way into public view. Any clip of him saying anything explicit, such as "She performed oral sex on me," would be played on television again and again, until it became so instilled in the minds of viewers that it would not only humiliate Clinton but become the single moment defining him in the history books.
The solution he and his lawyers came up with was a prepared statement with carefully chosen words that would make the confession as dignified as possible. Oral sex would be described simply as "inappropriate intimate contact." Phone sex would be called "inappropriate sexual banter." Everyone would know what he was saying.
Clinton and the lawyers also went over fourteen set pieces they had drafted -- prepared mini-speeches ranging from four lines to four pages that he could deliver at opportune moments during the session. They knew, for example, that the prosecutors would surely ask the president if it was right or wrong to mislead the Jones lawyers during his civil deposition, and they had rehearsed an answer for him, saying that it was acceptable as long as he was trying to be "literally truthful." Normally, lawyers instruct clients to give short answers under oath, but in this case, Kendall and Seligman knew Clinton would never be able to tell his story for the camera unless he talked right over his inquisitors. Besides, having negotiated a strict four-hour limit to the questioning, the president's team figured he could filibuster long enough to eat up the clock.
The prep session with the lawyers was interrupted when the president's national security team arrived to brief him on another matter. The attorneys picked up their papers and left the room, unaware of what was so important. Once they were gone, National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger gave Clinton the latest report on plans to bomb a suspected terrorist camp in Afghanistan and a suspected chemical-weapons facility in Sudan.
* * *
Around 12:30 P.M., Starr arrived at the White House, where he was met by Kendall, who pulled him aside for a private "walk in the woods." Kendall mentioned a weekend newspaper report suggesting that despite their long adversarial relationship, the president's lawyer actually had great respect for the special prosecutor.
"You know all those nice things I was quoted saying about you?" Kendall asked.
"I didn't say them."
"I didn't think so."
Kendall went on to tell Starr that the president would make a difficult admission to the grand jury that he did in fact have a relationship with Lewinsky but would not get into the specifics. Kendall warned the prosecutor not to push the matter with intrusive questions. "If you get into detail, I will fight you to the knife, both here and publicly," he vowed.
At 12:59 P.M., the president entered the ground-floor Map Room, where Franklin Delano Roosevelt had charted the progress of Allied forces during World War II and where the last map of troop locations that he saw in 1945 before his fateful trip to Warm Springs, Georgia, still hung on the wall more than a half century later. Waiting were Starr and six of his lawyers, a pair
of technicians, a court reporter, and a Secret Service agent. Accompanying Clinton were Kendall, Seligman, and Ruff. At 1:03, the cameras were turned on and the oath administered.
From the start, Starr's deputies set a confrontational tone by stressing the importance of the oath and asking Clinton if he comprehended it -- in effect challenging the president's basic capacity for honesty before his first answer.
"Do you understand that because you have sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, that if you were to lie or intentionally mislead the grand jury, you could be prosecuted for perjury and/or obstruction of justice?" asked deputy independent counsel Solomon L. Wisenberg.
"I believe that's correct," Clinton replied evenly.
Wisenberg pressed the point. "Could you please tell the grand jury what that oath means to you for today's testimony?"
"I have sworn an oath to tell the grand jury the truth and that's what I intend to do."
"You understand that it requires you to give the whole truth -- that is, a complete answer to each question, sir?"
Clinton tried to remain calm. "I will answer each question as accurately and fully as I can."
The questioning was turned over to another deputy, Robert J. Bittman, who began by asking Clinton if he was ever physically intimate with Lewinsky. The president said he would read a statement, pulled out some paper from his pocket, and put on his reading glasses. The effect of the glasses, combined with the hair that had grayed considerably in office, made Clinton look like an aging man instead of the vital, vigorous leader who had first emerged on the national stage seven years earlier.
"When I was alone with Ms. Lewinsky on certain occasions in early 1996 and once in early 1997, I engaged in conduct that was wrong," he began, reading slowly and deliberately. "These encounters did not consist of sexual intercourse. They did not constitute sexual relations as I understood that term to be defined at my January 17, 1998, deposition. But they did involve inappropriate intimate contact. These inappropriate encounters ended, at my insistence, in early 1997. I also had occasional telephone conversations with Ms. Lewinsky that included inappropriate sexual banter. I regret that what began as a friendship came to include this conduct and I take full responsibility for my actions."
For Ruff, who as the chief lawyer for Clinton in his capacity as president had helped direct his defense for seven months, this was the first time he learned directly that his client had lied to all of them. Ruff had come to the White House the year before to cap a sterling legal career, having served as the final Watergate special prosecutor, U.S. attorney in Washington, chief lawyer for the city government, and defense counsel for such embattled Democrats as Senators John H. Glenn and Charles S. Robb. At fifty-eight, he had spent much of his adult life in a wheelchair after contracting a poliolike disease while teaching law in Africa. Yet never in his career had he been as hampered in representing a client; as a government lawyer without full attorney-client privilege, Ruff had been shut out of the recent grand jury preparations and therefore had never heard the truth from the president's mouth until just then. By this point, that was hardly a shock, but it meant that from now on, Ruff would always have to wonder if he was being lied to.
Undeterred by Kendall's warning, Starr and his prosecutors spent much of the afternoon deconstructing Clinton's opening statement and trying to pin down the president on exactly what he meant and how he could justify his testimony. During the Jones deposition, Clinton had testified he did not recall being alone with Lewinsky except for a few occasions when she brought him papers and the like. Now his first words were "when I was alone with Ms. Lewinsky." In the Jones deposition, he said he had no specific recollection of giving her gifts. Now he was well aware of all sorts of gifts and named them in great detail. In the Jones deposition, he had said he did not have "sexual relations" or a "sexual affair" with Lewinsky. Now he was admitting that they engaged in some sort of sex play without stating exactly what it was, in effect insisting that he did not actually have sexual relations with Lewinsky because he was merely a passive recipient of oral sex and never fondled her as she testified he did.
Clinton jousted with the Starr lawyers every step of the way, insisting that there was no legal inconsistency between his past statements and his new admission, that he had been technically accurate before and did not commit perjury. Wisenberg noted that Clinton allowed his attorney during the Jones deposition to assert that there "is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape, or form" between Clinton and Lewinsky.
That "was an utterly false statement. Is that correct?" Wisenberg asked.
"It depends on what the meaning of the word is is," Clinton responded. "If the -- if he -- if is means is and never has been, that is not -- that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement." The president's lawyers winced. They believed he was being somewhat lighthearted about it, but recognized immediately that by quibbling over the tense of the verb, it would reinforce the public criticism of Clinton's slippery style with words.
Convinced the videotape would eventually be made public, Clinton resisted strenuous attempts by Starr's prosecutors to get him to elaborate on his admission, declining to describe his sexual activities with Lewinsky. But with his finger wagging and his eyes narrowed in anger, Clinton lashed out against both the Jones lawyers for their "bogus lawsuit" and the Starr team for trying to "criminalize my private life."
When they asked about his January 17 testimony in the Jones case, Clinton fell back on one of his fourteen prepared set pieces. "My goal in this deposition was to be truthful, but not particularly helpful," he said. "I did not wish to do the work of the Jones lawyers. I deplored what they were doing. I deplored the innocent people they were tormenting and traumatizing. I deplored their illegal leaking. I deplored the fact that they knew, once they knew our evidence, that this was a bogus lawsuit, and that because of the funding they had from my political enemies, they were putting ahead. I deplored it. But I was determined to walk through the minefield of this deposition without violating the law, and I believe I did." As for Starr, Clinton said resentfully, "We have seen this four-year, forty-million-dollar investigation come down to parsing the definition of sex." Never mind that it was Clinton doing the parsing.
While the president was in with Starr and his deputies, the rest of the White House was in a strange state of suspended animation. The waiting was killing everyone; little real work was getting done at the most senior levels. Soon after the grand jury session began, the electronic surveillance equipment that monitored the president's precise location at all times while in the White House showed that he had moved from the Map Room to the medical center. Some of his aides momentarily panicked. Was he all right? Doug Sosnik, the president's counselor and constant companion for most of the past two years, raced from the West Wing over to the residence to find out, only to discover that they had just taken a break and retreated to the medical unit because it was next to the Map Room and had a refrigerator filled with Diet Coke. All over the White House, televisions were tuned to CNN, where a surreal "game clock" in the corner of the screen showed the time elapsed during the grand jury session as if it were a football game. Joe Lockhart, the deputy press secretary, grew so angry that he started throwing things at the television and finally called up CNN correspondent John King to tell him the clock was inaccurate anyway because they had no idea how much time had been spent in breaks. Soon afterward, the clock disappeared from the screen. One small victory, at least.
The political team reconvened in Ruff's office, including Podesta, McCurry, Lockhart, Emanuel, and Begala. Mickey Kantor sauntered in and began delivering a pep talk. The president appreciated everything everyone had done, he announced. Nobody should worry that the president had committed perjury, he added before leaving again.
The other aides were stunned at the presumption. Lockhart was particularly furious. They had spent every waking moment fighting for this president, absorbing his private tirades and being lied to by both the boss and his lawyers. And now this guy from the outside professed to convey the president's feelings toward them? In their minds, Kantor was an enabler who encouraged Clinton's worst instincts and caused more damage than he contained. They had blamed him for spreading stories early in the scandal suggesting the president suffered from sexual addiction, and just in recent days they were certain despite his denials that he had been the one who had leaked news of Clinton's impending confession to the New York Times. "Fuck you," someone exclaimed as soon as the door closed behind Kantor. "Who the hell are you?" others piped in.
A more serious fight, though, was beginning to rage over the president's draft. The speech was supposed to be a straightforward admission and apology, but Clinton had written tough attacks on Starr into the text. That would undermine the message of contrition and merely set up a new confrontation. Throughout the rest of the afternoon, the president's advisers maneuvered over the language of the speech, with the political staff united against Kantor, who wandered in and out and professed to represent what Clinton really wanted.
After getting nowhere, Begala, Emanuel, and the others decided to go over Kantor's head. They rushed down the narrow staircase to the first floor of the West Wing and burst into the office of White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, who had tried for seven months to keep out of the scandal-defense business. They were about to screw this up, the other aides told Bowles. He had to come upstairs and help. For once, Bowles agreed to get involved and immediately raced up to Ruff's office to find Kantor.
"How dare you?" Bowles demanded. "We're not going to use this crap!" Bowles was as fired up as few had ever seen the mild-mannered investment banker from North Carolina. But he made no more headway than anyone else had.
When the grand jury session finally ended at 6:25 P.M., Clinton gathered with his lawyers and a few other advisers in the medical unit. Carville was among those waiting for him, positioned there in an effort to have a friendly face greet him upon his emergence from the legal lion's den. The president seemed all right, tired but composed. Given all he had gone through, he did not appear especially worked up. If anything, the adrenaline was still pumping and he seemed relieved. The lawyers reviewed his testimony and tried to figure out if there was anything to clean up. Kendall was particularly aggravated that the Starr team had tried to extend the four-hour time limit while on camera, essentially playing to the grand jury. The president was frustrated that he had not been able to see the grand jurors because of the one-way closed-circuit hookup. He had wanted to take the measure of his audience for perhaps the most important performance of his life and yet could not.
At the moment, though, there was no time for postgame analysis. "Sorry to interrupt you guys," Doug Sosnik interjected, "but we need to make a decision about whether you should go on."
With only five minutes until the evening news began, they had to determine whether Clinton should address the nation that night. If he was going to, Mike McCurry wanted to alert the networks in time to get the announcement on their broadcasts. The expectations for a speech had grown all day in the media, and the White House aides felt they had little choice. Waiting until the next day, they feared, would be seen as a sign that the grand jury testimony went badly. Besides, Clinton was anxious to get on with his vacation to Martha's Vineyard and escape from Washington as soon as possible.
"Well, I feel fine," he said. "What do you guys think?"
"If you feel okay, then we'd probably prefer you go on," said Sosnik.
It was a go. But first, the lawyers said they wanted a chance to debrief their client in private and ushered him off to the Solarium, while Begala, Sosnik, and the other political aides returned to the West Wing to prepare. About a half hour later, Begala headed up to the Solarium to see where things stood. Eventually 7:30 P.M. rolled around and the rest of the political aides still had not been called to come join the president and his legal team. For seven months, the lawyers had shut out the political advisers from the defense efforts, and now it looked as if it was happening again. They must be working on the speech by themselves, the political aides concluded.
"They fucked us," Sosnik exclaimed.
Podesta, Sosnik, Emanuel, and Carville rushed upstairs to the Solarium to discover the president and the first lady surrounded by his lawyers, prepared to go on national television with both barrels blasting at Starr. It was exactly what they were afraid of when Kantor had first told them there was another draft. Any attack on Starr would detract from the central message they thought the president should deliver -- that he had misled the country, that he was wrong to do it, and that he was sorry.
"I was wrong. I have to apologize to the American people," the president agreed. "But this is outrageous what Starr has done. If I don't say that, no one else will. I can't just let this go."
"People aren't going to hang with you because you're opposed to Starr," Emanuel told the president. "They're going to hang with you because of what you're doing for them."
Reaching back to the first crucible many of those in the room had gone through together, Emanuel reminded Clinton of his famous speech the night of the New Hampshire primary in 1992 when he came back to place a strong second despite the Gennifer Flowers and Vietnam draft scandals. Clinton had told his audience that night, "The hits that I took in this election are nothing compared to the hits that the people of this state and this country are taking every day of their lives under this administration." That was the emphasis Clinton should remember now, Emanuel said -- the people wanted to know their issues were more important to him than his own.
Everyone in the room felt the same way about Starr, Emanuel added. The speech was not wrong, but it was the wrong time and the wrong messenger. "You shouldn't do it. We'll do it."
Sosnik made the same point. "That's why God invented James Carville," he said, as Carville himself, the president's favorite attack dog, looked on.
But Clinton would not be moved. He raged that Starr and his henchmen were unfair to him, and he felt strongly that if it was left unsaid it would legitimize their actions. The front end of the speech, where he would express his regret, would give him room at the back end to lay out his grievances.
"I did wrong and so did he," Clinton huffed. "Damn it, somebody has to say these things. I don't care if I'm impeached, it's the right thing to do."
The debate raged on for some time. Kendall, still steaming from the way Starr had handled the grand jury session, justified an attack on the independent counsel's conduct because Clinton had to offer some reason why he did not tell the truth to the public for seven months. Harry Thomason, the president's Hollywood producer friend who had urged Clinton back in January to give a fateful finger-wagging denial ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky"), agreed that the president had every right to declare a zone of privacy in his speech. Kantor felt the president should be allowed to say what he truly felt and tried to fend off those who believed otherwise.
And then there was the first lady, who had by now covered up her hurt again to take on the role of field marshal for the defense. Hillary Clinton despised the prosecutor for once forcing her to testify before the Whitewater grand jury herself -- in person at the courthouse, where it would be more publicly humiliating. At some point, the discussion boiled down to a one-on-one match between the first lady and Erskine Bowles. Never before could anyone remember Clinton ignoring Bowles's advice on a significant matter, but on this one the chief of staff was not getting through.
"This is crazy," Bowles said. "This is stupid and wrong." In his experience, Bowles said, he had found that the best thing to do after screwing up was just admit it and say you're sorry. Don't blame it on anybody else.
The room was crowded with so many would-be speechwriters that Kantor finally erupted in exasperation, "This is getting out of control!" he cried, pushing himself back from the table. "We'll never get this done!"
Podesta, Sosnik, and Emanuel decided to leave, hoping if they removed themselves, so would the lawyers. But the lawyers stayed and Begala was left on his own to keep fighting without help. By that time, the die was probably cast. Hillary Clinton had weighed in.
pard"Well, it's your speech," she told her husband sharply. "You should say what you want to say." Then she turned on her heel and walked out.
The debate was over. Clinton went upstairs to shower and change into a fresh dark suit with a sharp blue tie that he had worn at his first inauguration in 1993. He returned to the Map Room and sat down soberly, placing his palms on his knees, steeling himself. A technician complained the microphone needed to be higher on his lapel, so Begala walked over to move it. Harry Thomason and his wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, positioned themselves in the room outside of camera range so they could cheer Clinton on during the broadcast. In a few moments, the cameras were turned on and the president addressed the nation:
"As you know, in a deposition in January, I was asked questions about my relationship with Monica Lewinsky. While my answers were legally accurate, I did not volunteer information. Indeed, I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible. But I told the grand jury today and I say to you now that at no time did I ask anyone to lie, to hide or destroy evidence, or to take any other unlawful action.
"I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that."
At this point, Clinton's tone shifted and his eyes narrowed again in that unmistakable sign of barely contained rage easily recognized by his aides. Any sense of remorse was gone. Now there was only deep-seated resentment. The questions about Lewinsky "were being asked in a politically inspired lawsuit, which has since been dismissed," he said. The independent counsel's investigation began with private business dealings and then "moved on to my staff and friends, then into my private life.
"This has gone on too long, cost too much, and hurt too many innocent people. Now, this matter is between me, the two people I love most -- my wife and our daughter -- and our God. I must put it right, and I am prepared to do whatever it takes to do so. Nothing is more important to me personally. But it is private, and I intend to reclaim my family life for my family. It's nobody's business but ours. Even presidents have private lives. It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives and get on with our national life."
In just four minutes, it was over. The rest of Clinton's staff watched from the Solarium, where chicken enchiladas were served. They looked around at each other with knowing expressions. The verdict was clear. It was a disaster.
"What do they expect me to do?" Clinton fumed when told about the negative television analysis. "Roll over and let Starr do this and just take it?"
An unfaithful president was hardly a new story. Grover Cleveland had faced charges of fathering an illegitimate child. Warren G. Harding engaged in regular sexual romps with Nan Britton in the same space just off the Oval Office that Bill Clinton would later find so convenient. Franklin D. Roosevelt had Lucy Mercer. Dwight D. Eisenhower was linked to Kay Summersby. John F. Kennedy fooled around with Marilyn Monroe, Judith Campbell Exner, and a host of others. Lyndon B. Johnson, ever insecure about the Kennedys, even boasted that he was far more of a philanderer than his predecessor, telling associates, "Why, I had more women by accident than he ever had by design."
None, however, had his private indiscretions so thoroughly and publicly excavated as Clinton had. A product of an era when the news media no longer covered up politicians' peccadilloes, Clinton had strayed so often and so flagrantly from his marriage vows while building his political career in Arkansas that he was talked out of his first run for the presidency in 1988 by aide Betsey Wright, who compiled a list of women and suggested he would suffer the same fate as Gary Hart had just months earlier. Four years later, Clinton launched his campaign for the 1992 presidential nomination by confessing to a roomful of reporters in Washington that he had caused problems in his marriage, only to discover that the tactic would not inoculate him once Gennifer Flowers had sold her story of a twelve-year affair to a tabloid. The next six years would produce a regular smorgasbord of tales from Clinton's past, each seemingly more sensational than the last, from the Arkansas state troopers who said they procured women for him to Paula Jones, who claimed he exposed himself to her and requested that she "kiss it." If rumors were to be believed, he had slept with movie stars, a Miss America, the wife of one of his ambassadors, the daughter of a former vice president, a woman on his White House staff, a judge he had appointed to the bench, the stewardesses from his campaign plane, and even prostitutes. It became almost impossible to separate the credible from the ridiculous, although the evidence suggested there was a mix of both.
All of which most of the American public had absorbed largely with indifference until January 21, 1998, when Monica Lewinsky became a household name and the political implosion predicted a decade earlier by Betsey Wright finally came to pass. Starr's investigators, having reached a dry well in searching for provable financial wrongdoing by the first couple, had now turned their attention to Clinton's attempts to cover up his extracurricular love life during legal proceedings spawned by Jones's sexual harassment lawsuit. For days following disclosure of Starr's investigation, even Clinton privately wondered whether his presidency was over. His indignant denials, false though they were, bought him the time he needed for the shock of a president fooling around with an intern to wear off, so that when he finally came around to admitting his deceit, the public had already processed the situation and come to terms with it.
But within the White House, a pallor had set in for seven months and virtually never lifted. The energy of the place was sapped, and top aides squirmed when forced to answer questions about their boss's sexual adventures. It was always clear in the West Wing who had an upcoming date with Starr's grand jury -- they would disappear for long stretches to consult with lawyers, and if that were not enough of a clue, their faces always gave it away. Many senior White House officials harbored doubts, but let themselves be convinced that perhaps the president was really telling the truth, that he had "retired" from womanizing, as he once put it.
Beyond the staff, the president himself was never the same after the Lewinsky story broke. He and his aides went to great lengths to tout his ability to "compartmentalize" -- to focus on his duties while putting concerns over scandal in "a box" to the side. And Clinton often demonstrated a remarkable ability to ignore his own political peril and concentrate on whatever policy issue might be presented to him. But much of that was for show as well, a poll-tested and focus-group-tested strategy to portray the president as engaged in his job and above the sleaze that obsessed others. In private, Clinton was consumed with the Starr investigation and its collateral damage, sometimes so preoccupied that he appeared lost during meetings. In the months leading up to his August grand jury testimony, aides would occasionally find him in the Oval Office absently moving things around on his desk or playing with the old campaign buttons he kept in the hallway leading to his private dining room. At one meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the president simply could not answer their questions -- it fell to an aide to conduct the meeting while Clinton sat there apparently distracted by his woes. On another occasion, the head of the World Bank left a meeting with the president and later called a senior White House official to say, "It's like he isn't there."
Whatever esprit de corps had once existed in the White House likewise degenerated into political cannibalism, as political advisers intent on saving Clinton's administration were shut out -- and sometimes even lied to -- by the president's own lawyers, who insisted that secrecy was the best course for their client. "I'm going to kill Chuck," John Podesta used to grumble at moments of frustration with Ruff, the White House counsel. Joe Lockhart would storm out of strategy sessions, warning the lawyers, "If you guys aren't going to shoot straight, I'm going to stop coming to these meetings." Mike McCurry actually did stop coming; anytime he showed up, his colleagues knew it was so that he could yell at the attorneys for hiding critical information from him. On several occasions, McCurry threatened to quit if they kept deceiving him -- once, early in the year when they misled him about whether they were using private investigators to research Clinton enemies and, more recently, when Ruff refused to tell him whether Starr had issued a subpoena for the president's testimony. McCurry's protests, though, made no difference. Even after the existence of the subpoena was finally confirmed, David Kendall misled him about whether the president's testimony would be transmitted live to the grand jury at the courthouse or merely videotaped.
Even within the legal team, there were subtle divisions, an "insane asylum of alliances," as one of the lawyers put it. Kendall and Seligman had been the never-say-die soldiers for the Clintons for years, while Ruff was an outsider more concerned about the impact on the White House for presidents to come. Where Ruff's relationship with the president and the first lady was strictly professional, two other lawyers ostensibly under his command, Bruce R. Lindsey and Cheryl D. Mills, had personal connections to the first couple that gave them authority beyond their rank as deputy counsels. Lindsey had been Clinton's friend and consigliere since their Arkansas days, while Mills had earned their loyalty through six years of fiercely defending their interests. Then there were the other outside lawyers widely disliked by the core legal team -- Robert S. Bennett, the blustery lead counsel on the Jones case, who scorned Kendall (and vice versa), and Kantor, a longtime Clinton friend whose status as a lawyer on the case appeared designed mainly to cloak him with the protection of attorney-client privilege so the president could have someone to speak with in confidence.
The revelation that the president really had lied -- and had sent aides out to repeat his lies on television and to the grand jury -- further embittered a demoralized staff. While more jaded advisers such as Podesta and Rahm Emanuel took it in stride, others were deeply hurt. Paul Begala, who had moved from Texas to Washington to help put together a promising second term, was devastated to learn that Clinton had deceived him and let him publicly lie on the president's behalf. Begala took his politics personally and sank into a deep depression, to the point where he vowed never to appear on television again defending the president -- and began thinking about whether he should resign altogether. McCurry had never considered himself close to the first family the way Begala did, but he had come into his job as the public face of the Clinton White House with a long career of credibility in Washington and was determined not to sacrifice all that by becoming the Ron Ziegler of his era. McCurry suspected from the beginning that Clinton was not telling the truth, and the press secretary went out of his way to parse his briefings with reporters to leave himself an escape hatch later should his suspicions be borne out -- as they ultimately were.
Outside of the Clinton family, though, perhaps no one was more upset than Erskine Bowles. A millionaire investment banker from Charlotte, North Carolina, Bowles was the straight man in the Clinton White House, an upright, no-nonsense administrator who helped banish the political chaos that had dominated the first-term administration. Tall and lanky with a lean, bespectacled, almost owlish face and a lilting Carolinian accent, the fifty-three-year-old Bowles had become the president's alter ego in his second term, mending his bruised relations with the Republican Congress and keeping him company on the golf course. Clinton had leaned heavily on him to take the job in the first place and then to stay when he was itching to leave.
Clinton and Bowles had never met before the 1992 presidential campaign, but they forged a quick and deep bond. Both sons of the New South around the same age, they shared a passion for golf and for bringing the Democratic Party back to the political center. For Bowles, the clincher came in a car ride after a fund-raiser when then-candidate Clinton noticed that something seemed to be wrong. Bowles told him his son, Sam, had had a diabetic seizure that morning, and Bowles was angry at President George Bush for vetoing legislation allowing fetal-tissue research that some believed might find a cure. After becoming president, Clinton repealed the research ban in one of his first acts and gave Bowles the pen used to sign the executive order.
While his own father had once run unsuccessfully for governor of North Carolina, Bowles had never served in government, and yet he abandoned the private sector to come to Washington to work for his new friend, first as head of the Small Business Administration and later as deputy White House chief of staff. He returned home in December 1995, but kept helping out where he could, finding a place in Wyoming for the Clintons to vacation and even handling the delicate assignment of nudging Dick Morris out of the 1996 reelection campaign when reports surfaced about the political consultant's illicit relationship with a $200-an-hour prostitute. After the 1996 election, Clinton prevailed on a reluctant Bowles to come back to the White House, but only with the understanding that it would be a short-term venture. Bowles the businessman found the brittle, scandal-obsessed Washington distasteful and sometimes disorienting, his antipathy showcased in a New Yorker cartoon he posted on the wall of his West Wing office. In it, a man roasting in the fires of hell commented, "On the other hand, it's great to be out of Washington."
Yet as the months went by in 1997, the White House enjoyed more policy successes -- and Bowles enjoyed the job more. A fiscal conservative who unlike his White House colleagues got along well with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Bowles had made balancing the budget his central political passion and within a few months of his return to Washington had worked out a deal with congressional Republicans to erase the federal government's red ink for the first time since man first walked on the moon some three decades earlier. The president wanted Bowles to stay, and in December 1997, returning on Air Force One from an uplifting thirty-six-hour Christmas-season visit to Bosnia, Clinton and the first lady pressed their case. Whitewater and other scandals seemed to have receded. Now it was time for a fresh beginning, to turn the second term into a season of real progress.
Bowles returned to Washington from Sarajevo invigorated and dove into the policymaking process that led up to each year's State of the Union address. He was confident he could persuade Congress to pass free-trade legislation known as fast-track, and the administration's domestic and economic gurus had dreamed up a series of exciting ventures, including expanding Medicare for early retirees and providing child care assistance for hard-pressed young parents. With the budget balanced, Bowles became increasingly determined to use the rare moment of opportunity to fix the long-term generational problems of Social Security and Medicare. And with Congress out of town on recess, the White House seized the agenda by rolling out these proposals one at a time in a carefully orchestrated campaign of announcements and media leaks in advance of the formal unveiling in the State of the Union speech.
In a fit of optimism, Bowles told Clinton in mid-January that he would stay on as chief of staff.
Less than a week later, the Monica Lewinsky story broke.
Bowles had known the Paula Jones case still lurked out there. Indeed, he had been the first top aide to see the president when he returned to the White House from the deposition on January 17, 1998. Clinton walked straight from his limousine into the Oval Office to confer with Bowles about an Asian economic crisis. The president seemed fine. But the first warning sign came a few hours later when Clinton called Bowles and abruptly canceled plans for the two to go out for the evening with their wives. That night, Clinton, worried about the extensive questioning about Lewinsky during the deposition, called his secretary, Betty Currie, at home and asked her to come to the office the next day so that they could compare their stories. When the Lewinsky story showed up in the Washington Post four days later, Clinton was quick to reassure Bowles with a lie. "Erskine," he told his chief of staff, "I want you to know that this story is not true."
Bowles had to believe him. It was inconceivable that Clinton had really done this. If Bowles did not accept Clinton's word, there was no way he could still work for him. And yet colleagues could see that Bowles was unnerved. Usually an unflappable manager, Bowles liked to tell people that he always tried to stay even-tempered -- at, say, 55 on an imaginary scale of 100. But he had allowed himself to go up to 75 in the exciting policy-driven days of early January and quickly plummeted to 35 or lower in the aftermath of the allegations about Lewinsky. On the day the story broke, Bill Richardson, then the ambassador to the United Nations, called Bowles because he had offered Lewinsky a job the previous fall at the indirect behest of the president. Richardson planned to disclose publicly what had happened, he said, and started to explain to Bowles. "I don't want to know a fucking thing about it!" Bowles interrupted. "Don't tell me about it!" Three days later, during a meeting with other top aides in his office on Saturday, January 24, to plot damage control, Bowles grew sickened at the discussion of the situation. "I think I'm going to throw up," he said, and abruptly bolted out of the room, never to return to the meeting. Three days after that, he accompanied the president to Capitol Hill for the State of the Union address, the moment Bowles had once anticipated so eagerly. "When I walk down that aisle, I'm going to be smiling," he told his wife beforehand. "But I'm going to be dying inside. Dying."
For the next seven months, Bowles refused to get involved in the political effort to save the president, almost as if he would not let himself even acknowledge the allegations -- or the possibility that they could be true. Other officials would find Bowles waiting with the secretaries outside the Oval Office while Clinton consulted inside with his political team about the investigation. Bowles would not even go in the room. If he got drawn into it, he explained to those who asked him to step in, then how could the White House get anything else done?
By late summer, there was no choice. Bowles had been on vacation in Scotland during the crazed days leading up to the president's grand jury session and returned to Washington only the night before, Sunday, August 16, making a late appearance at the office to get up to speed. There really was a dress, he was told. Apparently, Clinton's DNA was on it. The president was changing his story.
Bowles was distraught. Clinton had lied to him, lied to his face. He had sent him to the grand jury with that lie. Bowles had sometimes been described in the media as the president's best friend -- not just his best friend in the White House, but best friend, period -- and yet clearly he did not even really know the man. The man he thought he knew -- the voracious reader who devoured information before making a considered decision, the caring leader who saw hard-luck stories in the papers and asked aides to help out people in distress without disclosing his role, the politician with the vision to imagine things his staff could not -- was not in fact the whole picture. Everyone who knew Bowles saw that he was taking the betrayal hard.
At the White House the morning of the grand jury appearance, though, Bowles did his best to hide it. As he opened the day's 7:30 A.M. staff meeting, he told the president's senior advisers to stay focused on their work and ignore the obvious distractions swirling around them this day. Repeating an aphorism imparted to him during childhood by his father, Bowles reminded the gathering, "It's easy to be there for someone when they're up, but it's the good ones who are there when you're down."
Thomas A. Daschle was driving along a wide-open highway in the middle of nowhere in South Dakota later the same day when the car phone rang. It was Bowles, calling from Washington.
Can you get to a hard line? Bowles asked.
Daschle told him he was still quite some distance from the nearest small town with a pay phone. He would have to try calling back later, around 4 P.M.
Daschle knew without asking what the call was about. As the Senate minority leader, Daschle was the president's chief liaison to the Democrats there, and he had followed the developments in the Lewinsky investigation carefully. Daschle knew that Clinton was testifying before Starr's grand jury. If it played out to its seemingly extreme conclusion, Daschle realized he could be faced with the prospect of a Senate trial on whether Clinton should be removed from office. At four o'clock, he dialed the White House and was put through to Bowles, who asked where he was. Daschle told him and mentioned that he had stopped for an ice cream malt.
"Right now," Bowles sighed, "I'd give you a million dollars to be there drinking that malt."
The chief of staff filled in Daschle on what the president was telling the grand jury and the plans for a late-evening speech to the nation. Daschle thanked Bowles for the heads up and moved on to a hotel, where a few hours later he found himself in front of the television watching as the president admitted he had "misled people, including even my wife," and went on to decry investigators for "prying into personal lives." Daschle called his own wife to gauge her impression and to share his -- intense disappointment, both with the substance of the president's message and the manner of its delivery.
Like Daschle, nearly every member of Congress was out of town for the summer recess, watching television and digesting the stunning developments in isolation from each other. Yet even without the Capitol Hill echo chamber, the reaction among many of them was strikingly similar. Senator Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican who had been publicly promising the president that the nation would forgive him if only he confessed all, sat in a television studio watching on a monitor. By the time it was over, he was boiling. "What a jerk!" Hatch exclaimed in frustration. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt was in Paris, although his staff was refusing to tell clamoring TV bookers where in Europe he was, lest they track him down. When he heard the news the next morning, the Missouri Democrat with the Boy Scout sensibilities could barely contain his disgust and grimly realized that it would soon fall to him to decide whether to try to rescue the president or pressure him to leave for the good of the party and the nation. Senator Joseph I. Lieberman was at a country club in Westchester County near New York City, attending a wedding. Ducking out to search for a television, he found an accommodating waiter who led him outside into the wet darkness and across the street to his own basement apartment so the Connecticut Democrat could watch with his wife. Lieberman immediately thought Clinton's tone was wrong and unconvincing; the more he thought about it as the night wore on, the angrier he grew.
Lawmakers who had been prepared to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt such as Hatch, Gephardt, and Lieberman found themselves bitterly discouraged at his response. In the Capitol office of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, however, there was never any question of forgiveness. He did not believe for a second that Clinton was genuinely repenting; the president was only confessing because he had been caught. The DNA had forced his hand. For months, DeLay had been denouncing Clinton as a "sexual predator" and accusing him of providing only "the spin, the whole spin, and nothing but the spin." This then, finally, was the moment DeLay had waited for, the moment when Clinton would stand revealed as the liar he always was. He had lied about Gennifer Flowers, about the draft, about smoking marijuana. He had lied to DeLay and other Republicans during the budget battle that led to the shutdown of the federal government in 1995. And now at last was DeLay's chance to make him pay.
It was the waiting that was killing them now. At 5:44 P.M. that Monday, DeLay's policy director, Tony C. Rudy, out in California for the congressional recess, sent an E-mail to press secretary Michael P. Scanlon back in Washington to find out what was happening with Clinton at the grand jury.
"still no word?" he wrote in that casual internal E-mail style in which capitalization, precise spelling, and proper grammar were optional.
"Hes going to admit it," Scanlon wrote back. "the big q is on what level -- I still say we need to attack!"
Rudy agreed. "we need to force dems to distance themselves from theliar," he replied. "He looked into americas eyes and lied."
"God bless you Tony Rudy -- Are we the only ones with political instincts -- This whole thing about not kicking someone when they are down is BS -- Not only do you kick him -- you kick him until he passes out -- then beat him over the head with a baseball bat -- then roll him up in an old rug -- and throw him off a cliff into the pound surf below!!!!!"
Copyright © 2000 by Peter Baker
Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jeffer
Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jeffer
"For all of the titillation about thongs and cigars, the story of the impeachment and trial of William Jefferson Clinton was not so much about sex as it was about power. It may have started with an unseemly rendezvous near the Oval Office, but it mushroomed into the Washington battle of a generation, ultimately dragging in all three branches of government....
"Clinton opened his second term vowing to bring the parties together, to become the 'repairer of the breach.' But the last half of the presidency demonstrated that the breach was wider than anyone had anticipated."
-- from the Prologue
With unprecedented access to all the players -- major and minor -- Washington Post reporter Peter Baker reconstructs the compelling drama that gripped the nation for six critical months: the impeachment and trial of William Jefferson Clinton. The Breach vividly depicts the mind-boggling political and legal events as they unfolded, a day-by-day and sometimes hour-by-hour account beginning August 17, 1998, the night of the president's grand-jury testimony and his disastrous speech to the nation, through the House impeachment hearings and the Senate trial, ending on February 12, 1999, the day of his acquittal. Using 350 original interviews, confidential investigation files, diaries, and tape recordings, Baker goes behind the scenes and packs the book with newsworthy revelations -- the infighting among the president's advisers, the pressure among Democrats to call for Clinton's resignation, the secret back-channel negotiations between the White House and Congress, a tour of the War Room set up by Tom DeLay to force Clinton out of office, the agonizing of various members of Congress, the anxiety of lawmakers who feared the exposure of their own sex lives, and Hillary Clinton's learning that her husband would admit his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
The Breach is contemporary history at its best -- shocking, revealing, and consequential. It is a tale of how Washington became lost in "the breach" of its own partisan impulses. All of this, and much more, makes The Breach one of the most important and illuminating volumes of history and contemporary politics of our generation.