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The Lesson From Webb

Hubbell stood up to Starr and won. Will Monica do the same?

By Michael Duffy and Michael Weisskopf

TIME magazine

It's a good measure of how the country feels about the Sex Scandal of the Century that Monica Lewinsky can slip in and out of Washington almost unnoticed these days. Ever since she dumped her self-promoting lawyer, who seemed to escort her around town in part to stay in the pictures, she has traveled incognito, and even spent the occasional quiet weekend in New York City. She still puts her telephone through daily workouts, calling her attorneys and advisers around the clock, and she's taken up knitting to distract herself from the endless talk shows about her case. Last week she went to California to see her father, and by the second day all the excitement over her desperate-to-be-normal vacation gave way to the buzz over Barbra Streisand's wedding.

Give Lewinsky this much: she's got her story, and she's sticking with it. By the best accounts, she is willing to testify to some kind of sexual contact between herself and the President, but is either unable or unwilling to provide independent counsel Kenneth Starr with a key to the Big Casino: evidence that the President or his aides did something that amounts to obstruction of justice. Sources close to Lewinsky say there is no indication her attitude on the obstruction issue has softened in recent weeks. That's the main reason Starr has been unable to reach an immunity deal with Lewinsky's new lawyers, Plato Cacheris and Jake Stein. It's one thing to say an archantagonist like Lewinsky's ex-lawyer Bill Ginsburg couldn't cut a deal with Starr; but if pinstripes like Cacheris and Stein can't convince Starr that Lewinsky is offering all she knows, it would seem to put everyone in a very different dilemma.

For now, Starr is moving forward without her. Last week he finally brought Lewinsky's Pentagon confidant, Linda Tripp, before the grand jury to begin to tell what she knows from a year of girl talk with her trusting protege. Prosecutors spent 14 hours questioning Tripp and never even got around to delving into the 20 hours of telephone conversations that Tripp secretly tape-recorded. That could be because Starr wants to establish carefully her credibility as a witness; it may also be because the tapes are less than conclusive on the question of obstruction. Late last week Tripp appeared likely to resume her testimony as early as Tuesday, indicating that Lewinsky and her lawyers remain cool to a deal.

But just when Starr was tightening the screws, a higher power intervened to take away his screwdriver. Last Wednesday a federal judge threw out a 10-count indictment against Webb Hubbell, charged with tax fraud in April, after Starr failed to get the former First Friend to assist him in the Arkansas phase of his investigation. Starr had leaned on Hubbell, who had already spent time in jail for bilking clients and partners at the Rose Law Firm, to give up anything he may know about Mrs. Clinton's legal work in questionable Arkansas real estate deals. He was her former law partner.

Hubbell held his ground, charging that Starr had overstepped his authority and packed the indictment with information gathered under an immunity deal. In a stinging opinion, Judge James Robertson dismissed all 10 counts against Hubbell, saying Starr was on a "quintessential fishing expedition" and had ignored Hubbell's right against self-incrimination. Earlier Robertson had accused prosecutors of a "scary" reading of the Constitution.

Different as they are, Hubbell and Lewinsky actually have enough in common to raise the question of what lesson his experience has for her situation. Both were, at least at some point, close to the President. Both enjoyed the remarkable services of Washington superlawyer Vernon Jordan as a job-placement counselor. And like Hubbell, whose wife was indicted along with him, Lewinsky now faces the prospect of putting a close family member at risk.

Marcia Lewis, Lewinsky's mother, apparently gave her blessing to a plan in which Tripp would fake a foot injury to avoid testifying in the Paula Jones case, according to published accounts of the Tripp tapes. Prosecutors may see that as a case of obstruction of justice, giving Starr what one defense lawyer in the case called "maximum leverage" in his negotiations with Lewinsky.

Ever since the Lewinsky scandal broke last winter, defiance has been a popular and successful strategy. It has worked for Bill Clinton, it has worked for adviser Bruce Lindsey, it has even worked for Whitewater-probe refusenik Susan McDougal. All this defiance may leave Monica Lewinsky asking herself: Do I stick to my guns? If Hubbell's case is any measure, the answer might be yes.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: July 13, 1998

Playing The HMO Game
Let's Play Doctor
Ahead Of The Feds
A Republican Who's Taking His Medicine
The Lesson From Webb
Did the Summit Matter?
Use It Or Lose It
Dressed For Success


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