THE COST OF IT ALL
This scandal has scorched everyone it has touched--the President,
his family, the prosecutor, the press. Even if Clinton's
testimony puts it behind us, the damage is done
By NANCY GIBBS and MICHAEL DUFFY
Imagine spending your whole life wanting to be President and
being told time and again that you could be. The favored child,
you get the master bedroom. Your teachers call you a diamond in
the rough. When you make mistakes, you charm the facts and the
language into doing your bidding, and like magic, the problem
goes away. You can have whatever you want. And when you reach the
crowning glory, Hail to the Chief, you find that your luck and
timing are so peerless that you get to preside over the most
peaceful, prosperous era in the country's history. You dream of
greatness, statues, monuments, your name next to your heroes',
maybe even your face on a coin someday.
Now flip it. Most of the country thinks you are a liar and a
cheat. A zealous prosecutor is working overtime to put you into
early retirement. Every single night, the comics who truly write
the first draft of history spit on you and smile. Your attempts
to hide behind the powers of your office have diminished them as
a result. Your hands are tied overseas; at home your agenda is
dead. Your only daughter is back from college, and whatever you
decide to say, you have to explain to her first. Your wife looks
the way she did the day her father died. Psychiatrists report of
teenagers who act up and behave badly who are using, as their
last line of defense, "Well, hey, Clinton got away with it."
More than any politician in memory, Bill Clinton does not hide
his dark underbelly; he rubs it lovingly; it is part of who he
is. His inconstancy makes him flexible; his mistakes have made
him smarter; he is a glutton for sympathy. And so last week, as
he considered what to say under oath, the best and worst in him
took the measure of the hopes and fears in us.
From its very first days this scandal has divided the nation
between those who want to leave Clinton alone and those who want
him to pay, between those who think everyone lies about
sex--that he has been persecuted just because he is
President--and those who think this fate goes with the job.
Presidents aren't like kings, but they aren't supposed to be
like the rest of us either. The office confers a mystic
expectation, a combination of Roosevelt's brains and Johnson's
clout and Reagan's grace, that helps Presidents persuade
Congress and the people to follow their lead. The agony of
Clinton's choice was that his best chance for survival demanded
that he declare himself less than we expect a President to be
and more like the rest of us after all.
The moment Clinton confesses to anything, he loses some magical
powers; his decisions during the past seven months have already
cost him some actual powers as well. The shrapnel from this
scandal is now embedded in the polity, the culture and the law,
and it will take more than the passage of time to dig it out. The
wreckage spreads across the whole field of battle: his moral
authority, his ability to respond to a crisis, his room to
negotiate with a Congress that might soon be his judge, and his
ability to get the advice he needs.
As for the rest of us, there is no going back. Boundaries have
been broken and precedents set about the personal privacy of
public figures that are already down in permanent ink. We may
hate that this is so; we may curse every sex scandal to come
along for the next generation; but whenever the next one does, it
will have a new historical marker: "Not since the Clinton scandal
The process of deciding what to say and how to say it began, as
it always does with Clinton, late in the game, late at night.
Early in the week he was still all business, raising money,
threatening vetoes, worrying about Iraq and Africa. Because of
the bombings, Hillary was filling in for him Wednesday at
campaign events in Wisconsin with Senator Russell Feingold. She
told her husband to get some sleep. But Clinton's friend Harry
Thomason had just finished his testimony before Starr's grand
jury the day before, and had arrived that night at the White
House to see to his friend, play their favorite word games, talk
For months the legal barriers that protected Clinton from Starr
had been falling one after another, even as Clinton's denials
remained intact. So at just the point when Clinton had to prepare
the most important testimony of his life, he had to have the
hardest conversations first.
It is taken as gospel in some circles that Hillary Clinton has
known everything about her husband all along, that she made her
deal with the devil years ago. Neither her admirers nor her
enemies can imagine this proud, private woman as a victim,
trusting and gullible. But her best friends say otherwise. They
will tell you that she loves him, has since law school, the
brainy girl who beat out the beauty queens. She always dismissed
them; they meant nothing to her.
STARR VS. CLINTON: LASTING CONSEQUENCES
Paula Jones Case
MAY 1994 Paula Jones presses civil charges against Clinton,
alleging a 1991 sexual advance.
May 1997 The Supreme Court allows the suit to proceed, ruling
that it is "highly unlikely to occupy any substantial amount" of
UPSHOT Even the Supremes can guess wrong.
Expanding Probe to Monica
Jan. 15, 1998 Starr asks to extend his probe to include the
Jan. 16 A court-of-appeals panel grants permission.
UPSHOT An inquiry into potential criminal activities evolves
into an examination of private conduct.
Subpoena of Clinton Aides
JANUARY Starr begins issuing subpoenas to White House aides.
JUNE After a district court rejects Executive-privilege
assertions, Clinton abandons that line of argument.
UPSHOT The President's claim of a fundamental right to obtain
confidential counsel from his aides is damaged.
Subpoena of Secret Service
APRIL Starr files a motion to compel testimony from Clinton's
Secret Service detail.
JULY Chief Justice William Rehnquist refuses to block Secret
UPSHOT Concern grows over whether future Presidents will let
their protective shadows get close enough to do their job.
White House Lawyers Subpoena
JUNE Starr challenges Lindsey's assertion of attorney-client
JULY A court rules government lawyers cannot invoke privilege to
shield possible criminal behavior.
UPSHOT As the protected circle shrinks, future Presidents will
think twice about whom they can address in confidence.
Subpoena of the President
JULY 17 After several efforts to gain testimony, Starr serves
JULY 29 Clinton offers to testify via video, and the subpoena is
UPSHOT Clinton undergoes questioning that many think demeans his
At least they didn't until now. There is knowing and then there
is knowing, and whatever she may have suspected long ago and
wondered back in January and feared as each new piece of evidence
emerged, she did not fully confront it until last week, when her
husband had no other choice but to tell her not just what had not
happened but what had.
The private confessions had to be completed by Friday morning,
when the New York Times took over with a front-page story
suggesting that Clinton was considering admitting to a sexual
relationship with Monica Lewinsky but not to perjury or
obstruction of justice. With that, the wheels of speculation spun
well out of control, and the day was given over to lawyers and
former prosecutors and anonymous aides writing an imaginary
speech that the President had still not decided he would give.
Hillary, meanwhile, had to play host at his 52nd birthday party
on the South Lawn.
Clinton knew going into his testimony that Americans by a vast
majority believed there was sex; believed he shouldn't perjure
himself; thought Starr had no case if it's just about sex. We
don't want to know all the details; we just want an
acknowledgment from him that he did wrong and then to move on.
Clinton needed to give us precisely that--just enough and nothing
more. The battle between him and the independent counsel can be
cast as another skirmish in the 225-year-old war over whether any
of us can be safe in our persons, houses, places and effects.
Clinton is shrewdly counting on the notion that Americans would
give up a lot to preserve their own fragile privacy, and so most
will vicariously defend his. That is why he has done everything
possible to suggest that this investigation is about something
that is nobody else's business, obsessively pursued by a
prosecutor who has no business asking about sex in the first
place. It is why Starr will confront a reluctant Congress and an
angry public if all he produces after four years is a report that
reads like a family diary best left to therapists and
theologians. And it is why Clinton's aides are most defiant when
the subject of obstruction of justice comes up.
Until recently, neither side showed much restraint, and each
blamed the other for the cost. It has been maddening to watch
Starr and Clinton go at it, because they gave the sense that they
were in this for themselves and not the rest of us. If they were
concerned about the tender pressure points between the branches
of government, they would have called a truce long ago. Instead
they barreled through, conducting the nation's business like
The only antagonist equipped to corner a man as elusive as
Clinton is an independent counsel as relentless as Starr. Clinton
did not think he should be forced to talk about what he
considered totally private matters. Just as firmly, Starr thought
that the President was lying in this case as he had lied in
others, and that the pattern needed to be exposed. Starr would
make a demand, and Clinton's lawyers would try to block it,
forcing Starr to ratchet up the demands.
Because Starr had two things most career prosecutors never
have--an unlimited budget and virtually unbridled power to
probe--he was acting as his own judge as well as Clinton's. "You
have to set your own ethical bounds as a prosecutor because of
the sheer power you have, especially at the grand-jury stage,"
says former Watergate prosecutor Henry Ruth. "Because federal
grand-jury case law is practically all on the prosecutors' side,
the system places a lot of reliance on voluntary ethical limits.
This is one of the great dangers of the independent counsel act."
Starr hasn't paid much attention to voluntary limits; he may be
in that tiny minority of Americans who have no secrets, and so
sees nothing wrong with pinching the zone of confidentiality to a
tiny crease. There is nothing wrong with summoning Monica's
mother to talk about her daughter's sex life, nothing wrong with
going after bookstore receipts and hard drives and voice mail;
these are all standard prosecutorial tactics. Yet earlier
prosecutors like Lawrence Walsh and Robert Fiske elected not to
use all the weapons in their arsenal. Even Nixon's adversaries
never subpoenaed the President. In the past there has been a
grease of custom and compromise that kept Presidents and
prosecutors from getting this far in the hole. "You never want to
litigate questions of separation of powers," says C. Boyden Gray,
George Bush's White House counsel. "When you litigate these
things rather than bargain over them, you tend to lose them."
But then Starr was dragged in that direction by the
winner-take-all strategy employed by the White House. Clinton
used his office to thwart an investigation sanctioned by his own
Attorney General, thereby violating some precedents of his own.
Ronald Reagan waived all Executive privilege at the start of the
Iran-contra investigation, which arguably dealt with the very
matters of national security and diplomacy in which Executive
privilege is most legitimate. He turned over his documents and
diaries; he told everyone, including White House lawyers, to do
likewise, because he said he wanted the facts to come out. Jimmy
Carter urged his lawyers and allies to cooperate in the
investigation into the operations of his family's peanut
warehouse in Georgia.
Clinton, in contrast, tipped his bully pulpit into a street
barricade. He asserted Executive privilege to prevent his aides
from testifying, and lost. His aides invented a "protective
function" privilege to prevent the Secret Service from talking,
and lost. He invoked attorney-client privilege to prevent White
House lawyers from testifying, and lost. By picking, and then
losing, fights on Executive privilege, he gave a legitimate right
a bad name and has made it harder for future Presidents to invoke
it. "All they were doing," says presidential scholar Mark Rozell,
"was buying time and buying time."
At Williams & Connolly, David Kendall's firm, says Ruth, "they
litigate every case the same way, and that's hardball. Give 'em
nothing, tell 'em nothing, delay, fight at every turn. But when
you're defending the President, you can't run a defense like you
would for a private citizen," he says. Result: "Just like in the
White House, after all the attacks, the prosecutor gets his own
bunker mentality and starts to figure, O.K., this is a war." And
by the time the White House began attacking Starr for zealotry
and moonlighting and hiring aggressive deputies, Starr felt he
had no option but to meet Clinton blow for blow.
Taken together, Starr and Clinton's decision to fight to the
death will change the way the government works. Until now, it was
widely assumed that government officials--the President, the
Cabinet, members of Congress--could seek advice from government
lawyers without worrying about those conversations becoming
public. It is now clear that this and other presidential
privileges did not have the force of law; they depended largely
on the willingness of a President's enemies and critics not to
challenge them. By testing so many prerogatives, Starr and
Clinton have made good advice that much harder for Presidents to
Although it is too strong to say, as a White House staff member
did last week, that "there is now settled law that the President
can't consult with his closest advisers," the whole White House
staff feels under siege. Some legal experts suggest this
shouldn't affect the normal, noncriminal workings of the White
House, but that's too technical a reading, especially in a
climate when so much that is political has the potential to be
criminalized. "Who's to say that there might not be a criminal
investigation into the granting of waivers for satellite launches
in China, something that's been done since the Bush
Administration?" asks a Clinton aide. "It's an institutional
nightmare--Presidents will cease confiding in or seeking
confidential advice from their senior staffs."
So leaders are likely to try two things instead, both of them
bad: form independent and probably unaccountable shadow cabinets
outside government, to whom they can go for sensitive advice; or,
worse yet, keep their own counsel entirely. And getting good
advice in the future will depend on talented people being willing
to expose themselves to new legal risks. "If somebody asked me to
serve now," says Rozell, "I'd say 'No way.' You'd have to be
independently wealthy even to think about it." Some White House
staff members in private moments express bitterness about how
their friends and colleagues have been hounded and forced to run
up huge legal bills. "I will never again work for the U.S.
government," one said. "And I've told other people, Don't do it.
When you have these high-profile jobs that require Senate
confirmation, there's somewhere between a possibility and a
certainty that you're going to be investigated."
Part of the gloom will pass once this crew leaves office, and a
few years of normalcy could make much of this fretting seem
quaint. But that assumes some restoration of restraint: at least
a partial dismantling of the political-prosecutorial-press
complex that invites journalists to make their careers by
bringing down an official, talk shows to boost their ratings by
analyzing events that haven't happened yet, political partisans
to eviscerate the opposition rather than engage it, and
prosecutors to seek more money and more power in pursuit of ever
smaller transgressions. For that to happen, the American people
will have to be heard, and it is hard to imagine their yelling
any louder than they have for the past seven months.
The Lewinsky scandal "is like the Hope diamond," says Robert
Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
"It attracts people and destroys everyone that comes into contact
with it. The President's moral standing is destroyed, the
political process is suspended and the press, instead of
filtering out the fire hydrant of information in the information
age, is like a dog urinating on it."
There are many reasons, some of them fiercely personal, why
people hate this story so much. It makes it hard to watch the
news with our children. It leaves garbage in the living room.
Every story gets viewed through a dirty prism: How much is our
foreign policy shaped by domestic scandal? Did the tobacco bill
fail because the President couldn't afford the fight? Cynicism is
a political poison we've been absorbing into our bloodstream for
a generation. But this time cynicism is just the beginning.
All along this story has been less about crime than punishment.
From the nails in Kathleen Willey's tires to the jokes about
Linda Tripp's chins to the around-the-clock evisceration of
Monica Lewinsky, the story has nourished a culture of cruelty
that sacrifices empathy for entertainment. If Clinton has been
more mercilessly ridiculed than past Presidents, we can excuse it
as partly a response to his own decisions--beginning with his
decision to run for office. But the other civilians caught up in
the story never ran for anything. They may have done something
foolish or wrong, but who of us can imagine paying such a price
in humiliation for our stupidities and failures?
"This whole thing is horrible," says Todd Gitlin, a professor of
culture, journalism and sociology at New York University. "I'm
filled with disgust with what has become of this country, and I
hold the media crucially responsible. What has happened is that
in the glee, sometimes even the guilty glee, of enthusiasm for
this story, the press has sent a very clear signal to the public
that it lives in a different world than the world of a
Gitlin and other journalism scholars are hard-pressed to remember
any other story that has triggered such furor. It has forced some
healthy choices, a necessary filtering reaction to the
information age: so much is available around the clock that
viewers and readers become editors themselves, making judgments
not about what they can find out but about what they want to
know. "The general discourse had been getting cruder and cruder,"
observes Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners. "Privacy and
discretion had almost disappeared from the general public usage
before the scandal. Now that the salacious nosiness has been
carried to this logical conclusion, there's been a reaction on
the side of propriety. Now, this is a society that has had
nonstop television confessions for 20 years, people vying to get
on and reveal everything they can. With this story, what a
pleasant surprise--people are reacting by saying, you know, we
really shouldn't be discussing this."
And maybe soon we won't be. It is possible, even likely, that
Clinton will skate through here. There is no hunger on Capitol
Hill to go through impeachment. Senior Republicans have insisted
for several weeks now that only a clear-cut case of obstruction
of justice would compel them to start an impeachment inquiry.
"We're not going to let the Republican Party go down in flames
over a sex charge," said an aide to Senator Orrin Hatch, who is
chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee.
Some people believe that if Starr lacks clear evidence of
obstruction, the decent thing for him to do is stop and file a
report; perhaps the decent thing for Clinton to do is tell the
truth and then spend a month in a monastery. But decency is a
concept that gets more traction in a culture in which shame
matters, like Japan, where the CEOs resign when an airplane
crashes. America has always been too big, too fractious for shame
to work very well--and there are too many places to start over.
Optimists and reformers already foresee laws that will undo the
Supreme Court's Paula Jones decision and protect sitting
Presidents from lawsuits; revisions of the independent-counsel
law to preserve its value but limit its potential for abuse;
even laws that would affirm a privilege for Secret Service
agents and government lawyers. Clinton's successors, if they are
men or women of unimpeachable character and conduct, can go a
long way to set things right. Reagan was the latest President to
test the resilience of the office: following the disgrace of
Nixon and the disappointments of Ford and Carter, books about
the presidency dismissed the job as an empty chair. Reagan
showed what conviction and charisma can do. Even those who hated
his policies acknowledged his mastery of the magic. Someone else
will surely come along to restore the mystique; but it will take
more than charm and skill in our future Presidents to undo the
damage. --Reported by Jay Branegan, Margaret Carlson, J.F.O.
McAllister and Michael Weisskopf/Washington and Andrea Sachs/New