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TIME On Politics

Clinton's Crises: Twin Perils Of Love & War

How Clinton's credibility and ability to focus on one crisis may affect the other

By Nancy Gibbs

TIME magazine

(TIME, March 2) -- In the gaudy mansion of Clinton's mind there are many rooms with heavy doors, workrooms and playrooms, rooms stuffed with trophies, rooms to stash scandals and regrets. He walks lightly amid the ironies of his talents and behavior, just by consigning them to different cubbies of his brain. It's an almost scary mind, that of a multitasking wizard who plays hearts while he talks on the phone with a head of state, who sits through a dense briefing on chemical weapons intently doing a crossword puzzle, only to take reporters' questions hours later and repeat whole sections of the briefing word for word.

And so America has watched for a month now as Clinton lives day to day in Monica Lewinsky's long shadow, trying to get on with running the country while keeping her locked up in never-never land. Last week, as attention finally turned to Iraq, he was asking the public to compartmentalize too, lay aside any doubts about his honor and follow him into war. If that was a lot to ask of a peaceful and prosperous nation, it was even more to ask of himself. And sometimes it showed. When he stood before the Pentagon's generals and spoke of stonewalling and delays and deception and cheating on solemn commitments, rejecting Saddam's claims that his vast, fortified "presidential palaces" should be off limits to weapons inspectors because, after all, "we're not talking about a few rooms here with delicate personal matters involved," you had to wonder, What was weighing most on his mind?

The two crises unfold side by side: there is now a Monica team made up largely of hired outsiders who are quietly, carefully constructing their contingency plans to respond to whatever she may say, in public or in court; and an Iraq squad stuffed with generals and diplomats and political advisers trying to figure out how to sell the least worst option for responding to Saddam and conducting the war if it comes. The Monica team has no public face, never says much, spends a lot of time in secret legal proceedings and has a clear goal: to keep the President in office. The Iraq team, on the other hand, has a goal no one can easily sell, and a dozen spokesmen and -women who fanned out last week in full dress.

It was then, for the first time, that the President's failure to deliver two coherent narratives seemed to merge into a single credibility problem. The public says it doesn't really care if he had sex with Lewinsky, and many seem to suggest they could forgive him for lying about it, but that could change if he falters as Commander in Chief. Lewinsky could sneak up on him through the door of war, bringing along questions of judgment, candor and discipline. A clean win in Iraq would strengthen the impulse to let these charges fade away; but few in the White House hold out much hope that anything clean or clear will come out of this, and a messy aftermath won't exactly let him bask in the vindication of victory.

For now, the President who once said he didn't want to spend much time on foreign affairs can be grateful for a difficult-to-explain policy toward Iraq because it distracts him from the impossible-to-explain stories of late-night visits, gifts sent and retrieved and job offers from heaven. But his efforts to manage the crisis are complicated by the facts that he is isolated within the White House as never before, his staff is distracted, his Democratic allies are apprehensive, and his poll numbers are floating like clouds, so high and so very soft.

It has generally been true that a White House can handle only one crisis at a time. So the last thing Clinton needed last week was another p.r. disaster. Many inside the White House and on Capitol Hill were astonished that a moment as important as the Columbus, Ohio, town meeting could yield such a foul-up. "Any one of us should have recognized that we needed a presidential-level advance for that," said spokesman Mike McCurry. In private, others admitted that many of the normal keepers of the President's image were so wrapped up in the bedclothes that they had no extra reserves of vigilance for a foreign-policy event at which Clinton wasn't speaking. "It was an island unto itself--the normal White House team wasn't involved," said an adviser. "In fact, there was no real level of awareness on our part until last Sunday of what they were planning to do. It wasn't the right moment for a town-hall forum. And the participants weren't ready for prime time."

Behind the Columbus meeting there was an actual strategy at work, cooked up by the National Security Council message shop. The Administration hoped to show its unusually collegial foreign-policy team, the ABC trio of Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger and William Cohen, working so well together, taking the case for a distant war into the heartland. Albright especially is a commanding presence, a former professor comfortable on her feet with a lesson to deliver, a flack without peer when it comes to hawking a policy to the public and the media. The White House and Albright's aides had negotiated exclusive television rights to CNN to be sure of live coverage all around the world, including, of course, Baghdad. CNN and government advance people had hoped to use a smaller, more intimate concert hall, but when it wasn't available, they happily agreed on the big arena. And Ohio State University, according to White House officials, insisted that it be open to the general public, which allowed all comers. "Between CNN and OSU," says an official, "we were limited in our ability to influence the event." Which begs the question of why they scheduled it in the first place. That homey, Yankee tradition of a folksy town meeting is great for campaign rallies and safe issues like health care or job training. It's no way to sell a war. Armchair spin doctors noted that Albright alone, or any one of the speakers alone, standing up at a lectern, would not have been such a big, passive target and could have changed the emotional balance. The forum could have been held in a smaller hall, with a crowd carefully prescreened in the usual fashion for the White House road show. Instead it was the wrong people in the wrong place in front of the wrong audience: the hecklers put the panel on the defensive, three Budweiser frogs bobbing weakly on gusts of mob emotion. "Sure hope the war," a Navy official sighed, "is planned better than the town meeting."

A Democratic staff member in the House called Rahm Emanuel, the President's senior adviser for politics and policy, to rib him about the scene. Emanuel's portfolio is broad, but he usually sticks to domestic issues, politics and damage control. For the past few weeks, he has focused almost exclusively on handling the Lewinsky affair. "Hey, Rahm, do you do foreign policy?" the aide asked. Emanuel's terse reply: "I do now."

The fallout was bad enough to help shift the war strategy. Until Columbus, the White House had been unsure whether it wanted--or needed--a congressional resolution in support of a bombing campaign. But late last week, said some in the Democratic leadership in the House and the Republican leadership in the Senate, the White House began floating the possibility of having an Iraq vote soon after lawmakers return from their recess on Tuesday. And it won't be an easy sell. Lawmakers on both sides say President Clinton has to say please before they will give him what he wants. Many were not impressed by the briefings they have had so far. "The question that loomed large in the room was, 'What do we do after the bombing?'" recalls Senator John McCain. "They didn't have an answer."

Within the confines of the Capitol, it is virtually impossible to disentangle the politics of foreign policy from the politics of scandal. True or not, say many lawmakers, the perception is that Clinton was too distracted by Lewinsky to prepare a well-crafted strategy that would leave the U.S. and its allies better off after launching a bombing campaign. "Anybody who believes that the President's personal problems are not a distraction is living on another planet," says Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran. "He's got his hands full. I'm sure there is always that peripheral piece going on in his mind about who goes before the grand jury next."

For Republicans who would like to see Clinton impeached or forced to resign, the hope is that his popularity will have ebbed by the time Kenneth Starr hands them the case, and that a drop in Clinton's support will cause wavering Democrats to begin staking out positions away from the President. A Clinton supporter told TIME that in his conversations with colleagues, he was hard pressed to find anyone who believed the President's story. But he also said that no Democratic lawmakers were showing signs of abandoning the President. Yet. "If his numbers went south, people around here would be panicked about the election."

Clinton's foes were not about to waste a chance to draw the connection. Missouri's ambitious Senator John Ashcroft, speaking, not coincidentally, in New Hampshire, thundered that America needed "a leader, not a lawyer. A President who pleads the Fifth Amendment to the American people has abandoned his moral leadership. A Commander in Chief who surrenders his moral authority at home is ill equipped to defend American interests abroad." Less political and far more poignant were the anger and confusion of sailors aboard the U.S.S. Independence in the gulf, who were getting E-mail from home saying the war they might fight was secondary in the public debate to the Lewinsky scandal.

The President's aides know that favorable poll numbers are worth only so much. Many people who support the President really do believe his denials of an affair with Lewinsky, and if that judgment changes, their approval might well disperse. So far, the White House strategy has been reduced to stonewalling, denying, distracting, attacking and stonewalling again. But however great the public distaste for the story, each new detail that emerges about the Lewinsky matter makes it harder for the President to ignore. "If he says nothing," an adviser notes, "he has responded."

The President faces both a legal threat and a p.r. challenge, but the teams that are handling each have precious little to do with one another. The communications guys see the lawyers no more than about 30 minutes a day, quickly discuss the latest news reports and then go back to living in their parallel universes. The lawyers meet first, by design and by teleconference, and they hold all the clout. The group includes White House lawyers Mickey Kantor, Charles Ruff, Cheryl Mills, Bruce Lindsey and Lanny Breuer, along with David Kendall and Nicole Seligman, the hired guns from the Williams & Connolly firm. They are often joined by Clinton's lawyer on the Paula Jones case, Bob Bennett of Skadden, Arps. These sessions are about the legal battle: what motions to file, which privileges to claim, what Starr is up to.

Twice a day--at 8:45 a.m. and 6:45 p.m.--the worlds collide. The spinners meet with the lawyers in Ruff's second-floor office in the West Wing. Here the legal strategies hatched at the first sessions become p.r. strategies in the second. "We don't deal with facts," said a participant. "We deal with spin." The cast varies from day to day, but the communications team generally consists of McCurry, Emanuel, adviser Paul Begala and various other image makers.

Ruff is the link between the two groups. The bookish lawyer is a classic Clinton White House counsel--upright, well respected. Ruff took the job no one else wanted, and Clinton embraced Ruff chiefly because he's a solid, by-the-book lawyer whose advice is regarded around town as some of Washington's best and whose political motives cannot be questioned.

Conspicuously absent from the strategizing is White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, Clinton's faithful golfing partner, who used to enjoy a long fairway walk and a blue story. "Erskine won't get near this. He doesn't even want to hear about this," says an adviser. "He can't stand this stuff. He shudders." Indeed, he has suffered some internal criticism for this, but this adviser notes that Bowles has vigorously enforced the discipline; the result has been very little comment on the subject from even the most chatty White House staff members. "He has put the fear of God in them," says the adviser.

But if most people aren't talking, that doesn't mean Clinton won't have to do so himself sooner or later. Slowly, slowly, the circle around Clinton is coming to the realization that they must begin to consider how, when and where he will tell his story. And not least of all, how much of his story he will tell. Only the lawyers can be presumed to know precisely what that story is. But his outside advisers and White House aides have begun discussing what the story will probably sound like.

No one expected to hear a version floated in public so soon, which is one reason why McCurry's remarkable on-the-record remarks to the Chicago Tribune last week were taken as a measure of his candor, not calculation. "Maybe there'll be a simple, innocent explanation," McCurry told the Tribune. "I don't think so, because I think we would have offered that up already...I think it's going to end up being a very complicated story, as most human relationships are. And I don't think it's going to be entirely easy to explain maybe."

What makes it especially hard to explain is the fact that Clinton's advisers are building scenarios based on layers upon layers of what-ifs, most of which are not anywhere near their control. "Everything in God's green earth is being discussed," says one. The biggest what-if is Lewinsky's testimony. The best case that now seems possible, an adviser says, is that she testifies to "something this side of sex," an intense emotional relationship that raises eyebrows outside and that gave rise to fantasies on her part, but that leaves Clinton with relatively little explaining to do.

Then there is the worst case, that she says there was a sexual relationship. His lawyers may advise Clinton not to say anything, because it would put him in legal jeopardy for contradicting his earlier, sworn deposition. But given the preponderance of opinion that a President cannot be indicted, where's the jeopardy? And if Starr plans to send the case to the House for impeachment proceedings, the question becomes almost entirely political, which means it demands an explanation.

If so, how and where to explain it depends in part on how Lewinsky's testimony leaks. If it bursts forth from the courthouse steps, or in a big interview, it will almost demand a single response from Clinton. Much hangs on how credible she seems and what corroborating evidence she might have--like those infamous answering-machine messages from Bill to Monica.

One thing is clear: Clinton, his lawyers and senior strategists are preparing to discredit her testimony when the time comes--gently at first, but aggressively if necessary. Clinton's team believes that the taped conversations between Lewinsky and Linda Tripp could turn out to be the President's best friend. The lawyers believe that at least some of what Lewinsky says on those tapes is obviously exaggerated and provably untrue, which means there will be enough inconsistencies, inaccuracies and outright lies both in and between the tapes and Lewinsky's story so that the White House will be able to nullify or at least limit the damage they do to the President.

There are friends of the President who pronounce him unchanged since the Monicalamity began. He's sticking to his austere, no-sauce, no-fun diet; he went to see Georgetown play basketball Wednesday night; he watches movies on the weekend (Temptress Moon and Zero Effect are the latest). And he still rounds up his friends for the word game Boggle, the new official White House pastime, which he often plays late into the night, the Master version. But other friends are finding him uncharacteristically pensive and remote, an uncorkable talker who must now worry about whatever he says. "Anytime you get into a situation like this, there is bound to be somewhat of a bunker mentality," says an adviser. "You become us-them pretty fast." And just which war was that again?

--Reported by James Carney, Michael Duffy, J.F.O. McAllister, Karen Tumulty and Douglas Waller/Washington

Inside Spin City

The Old Guard

Ickes The President humiliated him when he wanted to be chief of staff, but turned to him when the fight got nasty

Kantor Another onetime contender for chief of staff, he also returns for the battle, armed with attorney-client privilege

The Lawyers

Kendall The President's Whitewater attorney, who likes playing the inside game, is manning the front line against Starr

Ruff His integrity and independence won him the job no one wanted: counsel for a scandal-prone White House

Breuer Ruff's deputy has been called the "straw boss" of the scandal operation, the man who runs it day to day

Out Of The Loop

Begala The spinner extraordinaire, he leads the battle of the airwaves, even as he claims to be in the dark on all the details

Mc Curry So far out he claims he doesn't know if there is a loop; yet the press secretary's musings bared his doubts

Bowles He got the job Kantor and Ickes wanted, and now is doing his best to stay as far away as he can from the mess

Super Insiders

Hillary Standing by her man--who couldn't stand without her

Lindsey Bill's friend stays in the shadows

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: March 2, 1998

Clinton's Crises: Selling The War Badly
Clinton's Crises: Twin Perils Of Love & War
Parade Of The Dead Babies
What Jordan Knew
Going After Starr's Camp
Monica's World
Essay: Ye Olde Town Gimmick
Calvin Trillin: Rudy Giuliani, Proctor of New York
The Notebook: "...a simple, innocent explanation?"





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