Tick, Tock, Tick... ...Talk
All at once, Ken Starr persuades both players in the Lewinsky scandal to come forward and testify. Here, an inside account of how he did it. Are Americans finally about to hear the whole truth?
By Nancy Gibbs
(TIME, August 10) -- If no one spotted Monica Lewinsky last week as she made her way quietly from Los Angeles to midtown Manhattan wearing a blond wig and dark glasses, it wasn't just her disguise at work. The girl we know so well, the one in the flirty beret on the Rose Garden rope line, is gone now, ground up by the machinery of investigation and fame. This new Monica is still warm, puts people at ease, pays attention to them when they speak, but she watches out for herself in a way she never had to before. The prosecutor whom she had viewed as a monster was now offering his protection, and the President whom she had shielded as her special friend was now the one with the most to fear.
It had taken 55 days of careful feelers, quiet phone calls and very secret meetings to get her lawyers into that Manhattan apartment. It took even more hand holding to get Monica there, given her feelings about the prosecutors who had accosted her in a Virginia hotel six months before. It was no accident that neither Starr himself nor his bulldog lieutenants were in New York last Monday morning. Through the next five hours of dignified conversation, she told the new, kinder and gentler team everything. But it was the way she told them that mattered just as much. "I think they convinced themselves that Monica was credible," said her lawyer Plato Cacheris. "They had the opportunity to see her and talk to her."
By the time she had finished, it was enough to get her what she wanted most: a gold-plated GET OUT OF JAIL FREE card for herself and her mother. And within 48 hours Starr's team had what it wanted too: the leverage to force the President of the United States to promise to tell the grand jury the Whole Truth about his relationship with Monica; and the dark blue, high-necked dress--which turns out to be from, of all places, the Gap--that might prove whether he actually does.
In a week of breathtaking volleys, after months of leisurely unpleasantness, the return of the legendary Semen-Stained Dress was the most surprising turn of all. As the FBI lab began testing it, all Washington, along with much of the country, was filled with questions: What does he do now, and When will it end? For those who think Clinton is telling the truth, his course is clear: keep telling it. And for those who think Bill Clinton has been lying all along, his choices come down to two: either stick to his denials and bet the farm that Congress won't impeach him for perjury--or spin around, confess all and fall on his knees in hope of landing on his feet.
Things had gone quiet for a while: a spring adagio after the raucous winter, when minor witnesses came and went and Clinton's approval ratings wafted above it all, as scandal stories fell to a total of only 10 per week on the evening news. The tempo was set largely by the White House. Clinton's lawyers asserted new kinds of executive privilege and then appealed each defeat, and they kept refusing, once, twice, six times, to accept Starr's invitation for Clinton to show up voluntarily to tell his story. Every so often Starr got defiant letters in reply, with fresh justifications for why the President would not be available at this time.
Time Was Running out
By July, Starr couldn't afford to wait any longer. With Monica confessor Linda Tripp on the stand and only a few witnesses left, he needed to break the silence of the only remaining players, the most important ones: the Secret Service agents; Clinton's loyal second, Bruce Lindsey; Lewinsky; and the President himself. For four years, Starr had tested the power of the presidency, and his record was mixed. Now he was convinced that it was time for the gravest, and most constitutionally risky, test of all: serving a subpoena on a sitting President.
By the conventional wisdom of some in the Washington legal community, the move bordered on bullying, overly aggressive and right on the edge of prosecutorial ethics. Clinton over the years has shown a great capacity for self-pity, but in this sense it is partly deserved: no ordinary citizen would face Clinton's present excruciating legal bind. No ordinary errant male would face a special prosecutor with four years of relatively slim results and an ever expanding mandate to search for potential illegality. No regular prosecutor could spend unlimited resources prosecuting perjury in a civil deposition about a sexual matter in a case that has been dismissed. And any private citizen finding himself in the cross hairs of a grand jury would get very clear advice from his lawyer: Don't help the prosecutor set you up. Say nothing. Take the Fifth if you have to, but don't hurt yourself.
But legal rights are for ordinary folks, not the man elevated to the office that transmutes a lifetime of ambition, dealmaking and supercharged hormones into a symbol of dignity, power and promise to serve the greater good. Starr felt he had an obligation to seek the President's testimony before sending his report to Congress, and he was convinced that Clinton would not be able to hide behind the Presidential Seal. As a former White House official says, "the worst thing he could do is start using the constitutional powers of the presidency to protect himself."
And so on Friday, July 17, around 7 p.m., Starr sent over his subpoena to Clinton's lawyer, David Kendall, at Williams & Connolly. And what happened? Nothing. No answer. Nothing Saturday. Nothing Sunday. Kendall hadn't even discussed it with Clinton yet: the President was out of town, and his lawyer didn't want to go over the bad news by phone. There was still time: the date on the subpoena for Clinton to appear at the federal courthouse was July 28, nine days away. But if the White House lawyers were going to fight it, they certainly were taking their sweet time about it.
Starr used the time to press hard on other fronts. The week of July 20 saw more action at the federal courthouse than at a beach on a hot day. He held sessions on Wednesday, not just Tuesday and Thursday, as Oval Office secretary Betty Currie wrapped up her testimony. The next day Clinton confidant Harold Ickes reappeared, along with the head of the President's Secret Service detail and two uniformed officers. Starr was pushing ahead so fast that he used two grand juries simultaneously to collect testimony.
Monica Switches Teams
That Thursday, July 23, was Monica's 25th birthday. She had planned a family barbecue at her father's home in Brentwood, Calif., but her comings and goings have been evoking the same response as celebrity weddings do, so she opted for a French restaurant dinner instead. As a present, she told her family, "I want my life back."
Starr would seem the last person likely to give it to her, but a lot had changed since they first met six months before, and Monica was in a very different place. For one, she had a real reason to fear that she could be indicted: Starr had made a conspicuous point of building his case without her, collecting evidence piece by piece from her friends, fellow interns, her mother, now even the Secret Service, that could turn her denials to powder.
At the same time, her room to maneuver disappeared in the public, hateful war her lawyer William Ginsburg had waged with Starr's office. He likened the prosecutors to storm troopers, animals, a "danger to the moral fabric of our society." In this light Monica was in a fight of good vs. evil; cooperating in any way with the investigation would itself be the worst sort of collaboration. From Starr's perspective, Ginsburg completely shredded Lewinsky's credibility without her saying a word; he implied that she had a foggy memory and a knack for fantasy, and had things in her past that might be unsavory. It was a nightmarish result: through May, Starr didn't trust her, and she didn't like him. When summoned to provide a handwriting sample in Los Angeles on May 28, she arrived at the local FBI office but refused to scratch out what they asked for.
The following week, she had new lawyers, Plato Cacheris and Jacob Stein, who brought with them years of experience, hosts of connections and a chance for a new emotional climate. Their first task was damage control. They needed to bolster her credibility with Starr and improve Starr's image with her. On June 2 they had their first meeting with Starr's team, conducted in total privacy, to convince the Starr camp that unlike the uncorkable Ginsburg, they were serious about doing this deal quietly and without publicity. That meeting stayed secret. "We didn't want any ceremony," says Stein. "That proved we could deal with them honorably and they would deal with us honorably." Lewinsky's team made clear from the outset that they would not allow their client to plead guilty to any crime. Don't even talk about a plea, they said. And Starr agreed.
That's because Starr was in a new place too. However useful as a pressure tactic, actually indicting Lewinsky for perjury would have guaranteed a long trial and an even longer delay in the prosecutor's pursuit of his real targets. Moreover, now that he had set the clock ticking on Clinton's testimony, it was more important than ever that he hear from Monica first. She was the force who would move the President before his grand jurors. As a Lewinsky lawyer told TIME, "They needed us. They were driven to us."
But the dance was a slow one. Nothing happened for the first month. Starr's folks were busy talking to other witnesses, in an apparent design to spook Monica into throwing in her lot with Starr. Some Starr allies were wary of Monica's new sharpie dealmakers; they weren't sure how much contact Cacheris had with his old tennis partner Bob Bennett, a Clinton attorney. And so just as Monica had changed her lawyers, Starr needed to change his. He pulled into the case an old Stein colleague, Sam Dash, a fellow member of the small legal freemasonry that had survived the Watergate hearings intact. On Tuesday, July 21, Starr himself called Stein and arranged a meeting for the next day at Dash's house in Chevy Chase, Md.
The hour-long session at 10 the next morning, conducted over bagels and coffee, was more a social gathering than a summit meeting, finally bringing together all four players: Starr and Dash, Cacheris and Stein. No facts of the case were discussed; instead it was a ritual of confidence building. Monica's lawyers told the prosecutors that she was worried that what she had to say wouldn't be enough for them. Starr worried about whether she was credible. It was Dash who proposed that Lewinsky come see them, under the Queen for a Day rules that would shield her from self-incrimination. "The main benefit of the meeting," says Cacheris, "was our being able to tell her they were interested in the truth and them telling us she would be protected." Starr proposed meeting at the apartment of his mother-in-law in New York City, and the curtain was ready to rise.
When Cacheris and Stein arrived at the midtown apartment last Monday morning, they brought along their secret weapon: Cacheris' colleague Sydney Jean Hoffmann, a 46-year-old mother of two with a law degree and a bedside manner. They had realized right away upon taking Monica's case that it was impossible for her to talk over matters of the heart and details so personal with men who were all pushing 70. And so Cacheris turned to Hoffmann to become Monica's handler. Hoffmann was a natural; not only did she and Monica have rapport, but she was also a former Assistant U.S. Attorney who could relate to Starr's team.
The meeting began at 10:15; Cacheris looked at his watch and announced, "We're going to be on the 2 o'clock shuttle [back to Washington]," cracking everyone up. Eager to put Monica at ease, the lawyers had Hoffmann gently guide her through her story as though they were in court. The account was straightforward, dispassionate, designed to be impressive, a preview of what she would be like in the grand jury. That took about 35 minutes. Then Starr's three lawyers took turns asking questions. "It was a real dance," a Starr official said. "We were very concerned how she viewed us. We had to make sure she felt comfortable with us and that we felt comfortable with her."
The session was dignified and calm. Starr's people threw no knuckleballs; they made no demand that Monica take a lie-detector test. The group broke at noon for lunch--salads and sandwiches--then continued until 3:30. Monica's presentation was enough to persuade the prosecutors to offer her an extraordinary deal: complete transactional immunity from prosecution for both Monica and her mother, which means that nothing Monica or anyone else says can be used to put her in jail unless she fails to testify truthfully when she finally has her day before the grand jurors. And unlike the many exchanges of proffers and offers and immunity deals proposed but never signed between Ginsburg and Starr, this one was built to last. As they were getting ready to leave, Cacheris asked for an immunity letter. One of Starr's lawyers replied, with tongue in cheek, "Do you want that signed?"
Very little in Monica's account has changed since the proffer she sent Starr six months ago. Yes, there was a sexual relationship, she says. No, Clinton never told her to lie; he didn't need to. When you are having an affair, you abide in a world of secrecy and deception that are so much a part of the way you think and breathe that you don't have to walk each other through the catechism of "If anyone asks you, deny it..." All the artful evasions were classic Clinton: he had gently suggested that the matter of the gifts would disappear if she didn't have them anymore. The 37 visits to the White House after she moved to her Pentagon job could be explained as visits to Betty Currie. And when it came to Vernon Jordan, Monica did not recall any conversation in which he discussed a jobs-for-silence deal on account of the affair; he was just helping her out, one presidential friend to another.
Back at the White House
For Starr, the most important thing about Monica's cooperation may have been its role in helping Starr secure Clinton's testimony. Even as he began to reel in Lewinsky, the time was running out on Clinton's subpoena, now almost a week old. By Thursday, July 23, White House aides were beginning to get murky questions from reporters about a possible subpoena, but the aides who usually do the talking were not in a position to confirm or deny. They had no idea what was going on. Kendall and White House counsel Charles Ruff had kept them out of the loop; this drove the political types nuts, both because it made them look uninformed and because they feared Ruff and Kendall lacked political judgment about a subpoena's implications.
On Friday the 24th, the day of the shootings on Capitol Hill, a news leak provoked a showdown in a senior staff meeting: word was out that a subpoena had already been served. Adviser John Podesta warned Ruff that if this was true, and if they planned to defy it, they had better know what they were doing. The Democrats on the Hill would not stand for such a thing. Another aide translated for Ruff: the party will abandon the President. In the end, spokesman Mike McCurry pulled back the curtain the tiniest bit when he announced in his briefing that Kendall was in negotiations with Starr over how they might get the information they wanted from Clinton--even though in fact the two sides were not anywhere near an agreement.
All the debate inside the White House about whether Clinton should testify was tightly limited to six lawyers: Kendall, Ruff, Bennett, associate counsel Cheryl Mills, Kendall's colleague Nicole Seligman and Mickey Kantor. Each morning the inner circle met by conference call, with out-of-body participation by Kantor, calling in from Hong Kong. The instincts of Kendall had always been for Clinton to say as little as possible for as long as possible. None of the more political-minded advisers, such as Kantor and Bennett, could overcome Kendall's doctrine that no news was good news. Kendall often said little during calls but typically weighed in privately afterward with the First Lady.
If Kendall was toying with the idea of quashing the subpoena, White House aides could have been on the Hill shopping the idea around. But when Democrats first heard about the subpoena from press reports over the weekend, all the people who counted went public in favor of the safest option: testifying. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch declared that defying a subpoena would be grounds for impeachment, and various congressional Democrats were adamant that Clinton had to talk. By Monday, with only a day left, with everyone on the record calling for Clinton to testify and no room left to maneuver, Kendall made his first real counterproposal to Starr.
While Kendall was preoccupied with limiting Clinton's legal exposure, the President had one eye on history. He had no desire to set a precedent as the first President to go before a grand jury to give personal testimony in a criminal investigation. Any such testimony could be especially dangerous if he and his advisers do not know what else Starr knows. Although the Justice Department has debriefed the Secret Service agents about their testimony, and Kendall gets reports from other witnesses' lawyers as part of a joint defense agreement, the White House has not heard Linda Tripp's tapes of her phone conversations, nor what Tripp told the grand jury. More important, they did not know last week of the budding romance between Lewinsky's lawyers and Starr.
Another Legal Blow
On Monday, even as Monica and Starr's team were meeting in New York, a federal appeals court dealt the White House yet another blow; it ruled that Lindsey's testimony was not shielded by attorney-client privilege, since Lindsey was not actually Clinton's lawyer but paid by the taxpayers. A government lawyer's duty, the judges wrote, "is not to defend clients against criminal charges and it is not to protect wrongdoers from public exposure." It has long been believed that if anyone close to Clinton shares his deepest, darkest secrets, it's Lindsey. The prospect of his testimony meant that Starr had finally breached the President's inner sanctum.
By this time all anyone at the White House could do was just hang on for the ride. Stein and Cacheris met with Starr Tuesday morning, inked the full-immunity deal with Starr's signature at the bottom and with his permission announced it in a spectacular, one-sentence, curbside press appearance. While Clinton attended a memorial service on Capitol Hill for the slain officers, spokesman Mike McCurry was left to put the word out on how pleased the President was "that things are working out" for Monica, as though that bouquet would be sufficient to keep her on the President's team.
Aware that the top witness was about to spill her guts, Kendall and Seligman turned up at the federal courthouse, asking for an extension on the Starr subpoena. Protective of the 23 citizens who have already spent a half-year in a closed, dark room, Judge Norma Holloway Johnson refused the lawyers' request, saying if Clinton can take vacation, he can talk to the grand jury. And at the end of the day, there were widespread leaks throughout the city that Monica had offered Starr examples of hypothetical statements in which Clinton had tried to guide her comments in the Paula Jones case. It was a signal flare to the White House: give it up. For Clinton the situation was deteriorating fast.
By Wednesday, Clinton had to move. After being prodded by McCurry, who said the press needed "fresh meat," Kendall stood before the cameras and announced that Clinton would appear voluntarily on Aug. 17 to give testimony in front of a TV camera in the White House, with his lawyers present, as he has on two other occasions. Starr agreed to withdraw the subpoena, removing several constitutional precedents from the playing field.
The White House Spins
The White House used the announcement to send some flowers to Capitol Hill as well. Clinton's political advisers are keenly aware that the President's fate is much more a matter of politics than of law at this point. The moment Democrats begin abandoning him is the moment Clinton's future in office is in doubt. It is a measure of how worried Clinton was that he picked up the phone that afternoon and called one of his few friends in the House, Californian Vic Fazio, to tell him he was planning to testify and to find out whether his support was slipping. Meanwhile, all four of Clinton's top political aides were speed-dialing the Hill, sending and seeking reassurance. "They're calling around and telling members that the President's had a great week," said one House Democratic leadership staff member. "The problem is, those guys don't know anything. I'll believe it when David Kendall calls me and tells me everything's fine."
For all the speculation that Clinton might be contemplating changing his story and trying to talk his way out, White House spinners kept professing confidence that Clinton would stick to his denials and be persuasive in his testimony: "You ever known Bill Clinton to be scared of 12 people?" asked one. "All I've known of Bill Clinton is, 'Hey, I can convince any audience.'" But that was before Monica pulled off a bit of stagecraft that surprised even some who thought they knew everything she had. Just hours after setting the date to talk, the White House saw on the news that when Monica appeared at Starr's office that morning, she brought in her duffel bag not only her tapes of answering-machine messages from Clinton but also the dress with the stain.
The Beginning Of The End
The reappearance of what the tabloids would inevitably call the Love Dress brought back one of the most salacious bits of costuming in this whole drama. According to sources close to both Tripp and Lewinsky, Tripp had told Starr of a night last October when she stayed over at Monica's apartment, back in the frothy days before Monica knew that she had a prosecutor in her future. She showed Tripp around the Watergate apartment and showed her a picture, snapped by an official White House photographer, of Lewinsky standing in a dark blue dress with the President of the United States. Funny that it should be that particular dress. Monica had joked with Linda that she had saved it as a souvenir of an encounter with Clinton. Do you want to see it? she asked Linda, taking her over to a walk-in closet and pointing to it. See, there it is, Monica said. But Linda is a conservative sort, something of a prude, her friends say, an unlikely confidant for so passionately confiding a lady as Monica, and she wasn't interested in looking too closely in the dim light of the crowded closet.
Tripp would be plenty interested soon enough: a month later, in November, Tripp telephoned Lewinsky at work to say she was short on clothes and wanted to borrow some of Monica's dresses. Could she come by the apartment, Tripp asked, be let in by the doorman and pick a few up? Monica was reluctant. "Don't you trust me?" asked Tripp. Tripp's irrepressible friend, literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, says she consulted with her client Mark Fuhrman, the controversial L.A.P.D. cop, about how to test for DNA on a dress. The Lewinsky camp refers to this as the attempted Watergate break-in (Part 2). Tripp associates say that story is not true.
In January, based on Tripp's advice, Starr's investigators scoured Lewinsky's closet for anything resembling such a dress but came up empty-handed. It turns out that Monica had given it to her mother for safekeeping, which helps explain why it was so important that Marcia Lewis get the same immunity as her daughter, lest she be liable for obstruction of justice. It now falls to the lab experts at FBI headquarters in Washington to see what evidence the dress might yield. Forensic experts say the passage of time, or even dry cleaning, would not necessarily eliminate traces of DNA. It doesn't take long to determine whether the stain exists, but actually matching it to someone's genes could take weeks.
It was always possible that Clinton would wind up reversing course and confessing all in some dramatic national address set to a full string section. Naturally this scenario is favored by those who think it would help him. A TIME/CNN survey last week found that if Clinton were to make a speech in which he confessed to the affair and to lying about it, and then apologized to the American people, 69% believe that Starr's investigation should end right there. But such an admission bears no resemblance to anything the President has ever done--not to the explanations of his draft card or his real estate dealings or his extracurricular affections.
This did not stop every armchair orator from writing the speech last week: I'm sorry I lied. I was protecting the privacy of my wife and daughter in an area in which people always keep things private. I didn't think I should be answering these questions in the first place because the underlying lawsuit was bunk, which has been borne out by its dismissal. Having to make this confession is humiliating, a punishment in itself. I still want to do the job you elected me to, and think I can do it well. [Aside to Congress] Impeach me for this, if you dare.
The President's Dilemma
The notion that Clinton had to offer some more textured explanation for the growing pile of evidence was coming even from old White House hands. "He owes it to the American people to tell them," said former chief of staff Leon Panetta. "This is not one you do in an interview. This is not one you do in a press conference. This one, you have to look straight in the eye of the American people and tell them."
That mea culpa would take some of the drama and steam out of the Aug. 17 appearance. It would affect public opinion, which would affect congressional opinion, which would affect the chances for impeachment and possibly Starr's own calculations. If any President has the communication skills to pull off this high-wire act, Clinton does. But that assumes that he and his wife could muster the will to set aside their loathing of Ken Starr long enough to ask for his mercy.
And it assumes there is some chance Starr would give it. For Starr has known all along that the report he sends to Congress has to be about more than adulterous mischief in the Oval Office. Over the course of his four-year investigation, he has come to view the whole White House operation as a vast criminal conspiracy, full of deception and evasion, from Whitewater to Filegate to Travelgate to Monica. Even if the public continues to assume that Clinton sinned and has forgiven him for it, Starr has many other charges he is pursuing, and it would be up to Congress to decide whether they merit further investigation.
As far as White House insiders go, the whole Jimmy Swaggart confession scenario was something of a national parlor game, not a live option. "The best thing to expect right now is our standard operating procedure," said an adviser. "He goes in, testifies and issues a brief one-sentence statement. That's the way we've done it in the past, and unfortunately, we've got a lot of experience in this." But there may be nothing standard about this operation anymore; Clinton's lawyers will have to be at least as hard on him as Starr will be, make him address every inconsistency and explain every gesture and visit and phone call that suggests that Lewinsky was no ordinary intern. For hours on end, they will force him to confront himself.
For now, though, the polls provide some evidence that Clinton's "less is more" strategy is still serving him well. The TIME/CNN poll showed his approval ratings holding steady at 62%, even as most people conclude he is lying through his teeth: 60% believe he had an affair, up from 48% in January. The findings bolstered the arguments of those who suggested that Clinton was right when he declared on Friday in the Rose Garden that "No one wants to get this matter behind us more than I do, except maybe all the rest of the American people."
--Reported by Margaret Carlson, Michael Duffy, J.F.O. McAllister, Karen Tumulty and Michael Weisskopf/Washington