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TIME On Politics

Will The Secretary Stick To The Script?

Clinton's deposition provides guidance for anyone interested in supporting his story, but Betty Currie steers by the truth, not the stars

By Nancy Gibbs

TIME magazine 03-16-98

(TIME, March 16) -- All the witnesses know there are dangers in the forest, traps laid by ambition and expedience, predators whose survival instincts are far sharper than their own. And so how handy it was, after stumbling through eight weeks of leaked testimony and veiled answers, to come upon a road map that might get them all out of the woods: the most complete account yet of Bill Clinton's deposition about what did and did not occur between him and Paula Jones, and Gennifer Flowers, and four other women--and above all Monica Lewinsky. Now everyone around her and the President can steer more surely through their testimony, duly warned of the hazards ahead.

The timing was vital, since the story this week will be guided by Clinton's secretary Betty Currie, who alone is portrayed by the White House as too honorable to shade the truth, whose office has a peephole into the Oval Office, who is one of three White House staff members privy to the President's phone logs, and who has emerged as the silent and sturdy pivot for three big players: Clinton, Vernon Jordan and Lewinsky. Currie, whose stricken face as she left the grand jury became a national freeze-frame a month ago, is reportedly calmer now, not terrified of a return engagement but not exactly looking forward to it. She spent Saturday night at the Kennedy Center seeing Don Giovanni, Mozart's opera about a doomed Spanish Lothario whose loyal servant kept a long list of his lovers. Currie's friends were sure of her instincts: "She'll follow the truth, not a road map," said one. But the White House was taking no chances. "It's great for us," said one adviser of the leaked deposition. "You got Betty going into the grand jury. Don't you want her to read it going in?"

No one will be watching her more closely than the Cartographer in Chief. For a public troubled by the image of an embattled President distracted by a consuming scandal, the reality is even worse than the fears. Though his aides say he will not be sidetracked, Clinton calls his lawyers constantly, the intense voice unmistakable. What surprises his lawyers at the other end of the line is the way Clinton jumps into the conversation as if in midsentence: explaining the latest piece to emerge from the grand jury or the deposition, putting it in context, dissecting its implication. Last Thursday the President was hyperventilating about a minor Associated Press story that suggested a Kenneth Starr Whitewater witness might be financially connected to the archconservative Pittsburgh philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife. "The President is completely and totally obsessed with the intricate details of the story as it unfolds day to day," said a defense lawyer on the case. This is partly a reflection of character, partly of circumstance. "In one sense," says an adviser, "it's no different than if he were dealing with affirmative action or planning to bomb Saddam Hussein. He's a detail man." But another lawyer put it more bluntly. "Sure he's paying attention to this. It's life and death."

And if this were chess, Clinton would be sacrificing pawns to protect his queen. It's O.K. to let the little details come out, the reasoning goes, so long as no one breaks ranks on the big questions. Thus in the Washington Post's account of the deposition, Clinton concedes a lot of points that had already surfaced elsewhere: he gave Monica gifts; she gave him gifts and brought him pizza as well; he says they may have been alone together, but there was no sex; he says he talked to her about both the Paula Jones case and the fact that she might have to testify; he was kept informed about her job hunt but says he did not initiate it. The new details may be damaging, but they are not conclusive: there is a difference between showing bad judgment and breaking the law.

It says a lot about the depth of the capital's cynicism that the instant the deposition leaked, those at the White House were the presumed culprits. They are the only players on the field adroit enough to pull off a p.r. play of this complexity--and the ones with the most to gain. The new details helped further numb the public to talk of sex in the Oval Office, kept Starr on the defensive with hints that he was the leaker and laid out the script for other witnesses to follow. This week, when Jones' lawyers argue why their case should go forward, they are sure to trot out the names of all the women who can point to a pattern of misconduct by the President. But now, thanks to the front page of the Washington Post, each woman knows exactly what the President has admitted: how many nights he stayed at Shelia Lawrence's house or visited Beth Coulson while her husband was not home. And all those encounters, Clinton insisted, were totally innocent. As for Gennifer Flowers, Clinton has conceded one 1977 sexual session with her, a revelation that no longer feels like much of one after six years of late-night jokes and a tell-all book.

A White House official admitted Thursday that there was nothing bad in the story for Clinton. And he added that it was widely believed inside the White House that the clearance for leaking the deposition came from someone very close to Clinton. As protocol in these matters demands, Clinton's lawyers howled their outrage: They insist this had been a "disaster" for their side, putting Clinton the Philanderer on the front page again, this time in his own words. But the account also provided, for the first time in this scandal, a story line that is minimalist, consistent and covers nearly all the bases.

Conveniently, the leak also provided another pretext for invoking executive privilege. You can hear the arguments already. Why let Clinton consigliere Bruce Lindsey testify if Starr is going to leak it? And here lies perhaps a most important motivation: slowing Starr's progress on Monica. The White House is fighting a two-front war. The first battle is the Jones trial: if Clinton prevails there, and his lawyers are confident that he will, he has a stronger case for defending himself against Starr. A victory over Jones would boost Clinton's image as the beleaguered victim and trivialize Starr's whole obstruction campaign. For this strategy to work, though, Clinton's team needs to keep Starr defending himself against leaks as well as chasing small shafts of daylight between the accounts of his principal witnesses.

Starr's problem is that their stories had been converging for a week. What Lewinsky said in her affidavit, what Jordan said in his testimony, what Clinton swore in his deposition--the general shape of their narrative is the same: Lewinsky and Clinton had shared something less than sex but something more than a handshake; Jordan helped her get a job but not at the President's behest; there were gifts exchanged and visits made, but Currie was always somehow involved. "His complete denial a month ago looks now like the right approach," says a White House insider. "He is exposed only on the little facts. Does it leave oddities? Yes. Does it explain Vernon Jordan's job hunt? No. Does it leave her alone with the President? Yes. But those questions are just questions. They aren't very much at all."

That may be an overstatement, but just how much of one depends on what Currie and Lewinsky eventually have to say. The key issues:

THE GIFTS Clinton and Lewinsky have both acknowledged that gifts were exchanged. Clinton now claims it was Currie who asked him to pick up some presents and even specified what to get Monica, according to the New York Times. This answer helps explain the T shirt from Martha's Vineyard but stretches credulity when it comes to his giving her a copy of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which he also happened to give Hillary when they were courting. As for Lewinsky's gifts to Clinton, many people shovel trinkets at the President, and the smart ones know the best way to get gifts to Clinton is through Currie. That still leaves unexplained whose idea it was for Monica to return the presents to Currie after Jones' lawyers subpoenaed them.

THE VISITS Monica was at the White House 37 times after she went to work at the Pentagon. The sticky question is how many times she met Clinton privately. Was it five, as Clinton said in his account? Or more? The difference, said a lawyer, could be trouble. "If Monica's testimony is that they were alone 25 times, that's a tough statement. Can you believe anyone doesn't remember 25 times?" Which helps explain what Starr wants to know from Currie: How many visits does she recall? Were they during the day or late at night? Was Currie always there? Or almost never?

THE JOB HUNT Vernon Jordan admitted long ago that he had helped Lewinsky find a private-sector job; the issue is why, and at whose behest? The stories, as told so far, are consistent. Currie made the approach to Jordan, which allows Clinton to maintain that he was passive in the job hunt and yet invited Jordan to work aggressively on her behalf. Starr is certain to press Currie this week on who instigated the effort and when.

THE SEX Clinton has said from the start that they never had sex; Monica has told friends they had oral sex. The Post account repeated what had been known for weeks: that the lawyers deposing Clinton used a definition that included, by name, any touching of the genitals, groin, breasts, inner thigh or buttocks with the purpose to arouse or gratify. This broad definition is helpful to everyone who is likely to be called before the grand jury because it clarifies things: groping counts; kissing does not.

PIZZA NIGHT Clinton said in his deposition that Lewinsky and other interns brought him a pizza one evening during the government shutdown in November 1995. But a lawyer on the case has told TIME a different story: "It wasn't that there were a bunch of interns," says the attorney. "There was only one." And the FBI has pictures: it turns out there was a photographer around that night who was recording the stresses and strains of the shutdown and who has Monica coming to the rescue, pizza in hand. The date was Nov. 17, when all the regular staff had been sent home--and when, Lewinsky would later claim, the relationship began.

Should she decide to cooperate with Starr, Lewinsky may still be an unwitting ally of Clinton's. Even if Monica testified to a torrid Oval Office affair, says a White House insider, her credibility is now so ragged that it would be subject to reasonable doubt. The most senior cynics see an advantage here in the curious behavior of her lawyer, William Ginsburg: change her story often enough, and she becomes useless to Starr's case. She says in private she had sex, denies it in her affidavit, admits it in her proffer and then backs away from that. Which version will Monica offer Starr's grand jury, and what on earth would they be inclined to believe?

But before Starr and Ginsburg can get even that far, they must either make some peace or declare war. This is why they spent hours in front of a judge on Thursday trying to resolve the fate of an earlier immunity deal--and got nowhere. Ginsburg wants a full immunity blanket to protect his client from prosecution. Starr is playing very tough: far from being squeamish about prosecuting a 24-year-old, he may have to go to a criminal trial to get her to come clean.

As for the President, defense lawyers last week began to ask aloud whether Starr could, in his dreams, build anything better than a circumstantial case against him. The timing of the meetings and the headhunting and the subpoenas may look fishy, but if all parties deny any wicked intent, Starr can't do much with what's left. As one lawyer put it: "The President can say, 'I learned she was going to be a witness. I then asked Vernon to get her a job. But my purpose was not to affect her testimony.' The issue for Starr is going to be how circumstantial a case of obstruction can he take to trial." And it probably did not help any to have Senate G.O.P. leader Trent Lott declaring that Starr "has had enough time, and it's time to show us his cards."

Starr's fix bears a passing resemblance to that old game-theory staple, the prisoner's dilemma. In that game the suspects in a crime are isolated from one another and invited to cooperate. If they all stay quiet, they'll be O.K., but if anyone confesses, the others go to jail. Each prisoner then has to calculate his own odds by guessing at his accomplices' instincts for self-preservation.

There is, of course, one big difference: while Starr's witnesses cannot confer in this case, their lawyers can. And they are. Currie's lawyer is close to one of Clinton's. Another Clinton attorney, David Kendall, met with Ginsburg last Friday to discuss what Ginsburg described as "common legal issues and how we are going to handle them." Then there's the road map. And so Starr faces the very real possibility that just about everyone involved in the mysterious interrelationships of the President and the intern and the secretary and the headhunter may just deny any crime and walk away.

--Reported by Michael Duffy, Karen Tumulty and Michael Weisskopf/Washington
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: March 16, 1998

True Colors
A Primary Roll Call
"Primary Colors" A Tale Of Two Bills
All The Presidents' Movies
Will Betty Currie Stick To The Script?
The White House: Getting The Story Straight
The Nonsense Stops Here: Profile of Judge Johnson
Purloined Papers At The State Department?
Now It's Paula Jones' Turn
Hizzoner The Hall Monitor: Rudy Giuliani
Mr. Gates Goes To Washington
Bill Gates' Diary
Harassed Or Hazed?
The Notebook: Oh...That Clinton Personality





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