Analysis: Clinton Faces His Most Serious Crisis
By Craig Staats/AllPolitics
WASHINGTON (Jan. 22) -- Only a few weeks ago, some political analysts virtually wrote off Bill Clinton as a lame duck, wondering how he would fill his final three years as president.
Now, in the space of one supercharged 24-hour news cycle, Clinton has gone from ineffectual lame duck to president in crisis. He is fighting the most serious threat yet to his presidency: allegations he had an affair with a young White House intern, then encouraged her to lie about it in a legal affidavit.
Still, there is so much that isn't known yet. Did Clinton really have a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky? Could she have fabricated the whole thing? What do those covert audio tapes prove?
As smart as he is, Clinton seemed slow on the uptake when the story broke Wednesday, judging from the verbal soft shoe he performed when first asked about the accusations by PBS' Jim Lehrer.
When Lehrer asked Clinton: "You had no sexual relationship with this young woman?" Clinton replied, "There is not a sexual relationship."
Note that Clinton didn't say: "There was no sexual relationship."
He danced around the issue, talking like a lawyer, not an aggrieved party.
Now White House sources say they intend to be more forceful about getting out their side, especially their denial that Clinton didn't attempt to suborn perjury or obstruct justice. That's the crux of this mess, not who might have been sleeping with whom.
Today Clinton was more forceful. "The allegations are false, and I would never ask anybody to do anything other than tell the truth," Clinton said. "I would rather you had more [information] rather than less, sooner rather than later."
Press Secretary Michael McCurry continues to duck most questions, though. McCurry said Clinton wants to answer the accusations, but he added, "We've been ... served with a document request from the Office of Independent Counsel. And that requires us to
go through and methodically pull together the information that's
been asked for and assemble it."
McCurry began today's briefing by saying, "Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the theater of the absurd." It's not absurd, though, for Americans to wonder about Clinton's veracity.
When candidate Clinton was running for president in 1992 and he needed votes, he did all he could to leave the impression he had not had an adulterous relationship with ex-cabaret singer Gennifer Flowers. Later, in that famous "60 Minutes" interview, he hinted that something might have occurred, but strived for all the vagueness and ambiguity he could muster.
Now sources have told CNN that Clinton has acknowledged in his deposition in the Paula Jones' case he did have an affair with Flowers, though not the long-running one she described.
Because of that, it's not Clinton-bashing to wonder whether a different story regarding Lewinsky will also come out in dribs and drabs.
Clinton ought to give thanks that Americans have been tolerant about past bimbo eruptions.
In 1992, voters wanted to know what he was going to do about a then-ailing economy. They contrasted what he said with George Bush's record and elected Clinton. Voters didn't much care what might have happened years before in Arkansas.
This is different. Most Americans probably would consider an affair between Clinton and a young and apparently impressionable White House intern as repugnant and sleazy on its face. And these accusations are in the present, while Clinton was president.
Polls suggest Americans don't think Clinton is the most morally upright man ever to hold the office, but they generally approve of his performance. That hasn't changed, despite the current firestorm.
A new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll this week found that Clinton's approval rating hasn't changed, although a majority of the public -- 54 percent -- is already convinced that the allegations of the affair are true.
It's far too early to say where this saga may go, or assess the impact on Clinton's presidency. Legally, prosecutor Kenneth Starr's expanded investigation represents a serious threat. Politically, Republicans have been relatively quiet so far, letting news organziations drive the story.
If Clinton doesn't address the allegations in a meaningful way before Tuesday, whatever policy proposals he includes in his State of the Union speech that night may not get the attention they deserve.
Earlier this week, before these new allegations, Vice President Al Gore suggested the public wasn't all that interested in some of the controversies bedeviling his boss.
"I think people have long since tired of the kinds of controversies that have been going on for five years in the news media," Gore said. "My guess is that people have long since sort of put this aside in a compartment of their thinking that is not really considered to be too relevant to what the White House is doing ..."
The question is, how big a compartment will Americans tolerate?