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The Politics Of Yuck

As Ken Starr's report approaches, Washington is bracing for a storm of all-too-vivid details from Clinton's personal life--and not just from his alone

By Richard Lacayo

For once the federal government is going to produce a document that won't collect dust on library shelves. Sometime between now and the end of this month, the report of independent counsel Kenneth Starr is expected to be sent to Congress, where it will promptly explode. Washington is bracing itself for a text unlike anything it has ever handled, with interludes that describe, in all too fascinating detail, half a dozen or more anatomical engagements between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. Depending on how vivid it is, Starr's report could be the closest thing to pornography ever issued by the Government Printing Office.

Even if the most embarrassing parts are walled off in a section made available only to selected members of Congress, nobody expects the wall to hold. Titillating stories that may or may not be from Starr's grand-jury room have been churning for weeks through the Internet and the supermarket tabloids, waiting for mainstream news outlets to pick them up, give them the luster of legitimacy and dispatch them to the wider world. Last week NBC Nightly News gravely confirmed a Drudge Report item that Clinton and Lewinsky once had sex after he attended Easter services. No big deal. More scabrous stuff than that bounces regularly from cyberland to Jay Leno without stopping for the niceties of confirmation.

Much as they might enjoy the President's deepening humiliation, and they do, even Republicans are wary. Playing in the mud is a messy game for everybody. Starr's report is likely to mean a new cycle of smutty particulars to be worked over endlessly by the news-entertainment continuum. A public already sick to death of unlaundered dresses and dirty jokes about cigars could blame Republicans for starting and prolonging the whole thing even as citizens turn away in disgust from the President himself.

Republicans have the comfort of expecting that in November voters will be more likely to punish the Democrats. After all, Clinton is the head of their party, while Ken Starr, a chronic loser in opinion polls, is not on the ballot. That's why a vocal and growing minority of Republicans, led by House whip Tom DeLay, is demanding that the full text of the report be made public as soon as it arrives. For different reasons, so did Democrat John Dingell of Michigan. Like many Democrats, he may figure that the details will come out anyway, so it's better to suffer a short, sharp shock than a prolonged drip of leaks.

Everybody else is in unexplored territory and knows it. With so much at stake Democrats in Congress are anxious not to be cut out of the process that decides how the report will be handled. And Republicans have to be careful not to let the whole thing look like a partisan funfest. So this week House Speaker Newt Gingrich will hold an unusual meeting with minority leader Dick Gephardt and other members of the House leadership to decide just who gets to see the dirty parts. The House rules committee has already drawn up a proposal that would have Starr's full text sent at first only to members of the judiciary committee, which has first jurisdiction over any impeachment process. All other House members would get an expurgated summary, though the entire report would be sent to them as well if the committee decided it provided grounds for impeachment.

Even under those rules, House committee hearings could easily turn into peep-show-style government, a prospect that worries judiciary chairman Henry Hyde. As the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill proceedings showed, it's hard to play the role of Olympian legislators while you're asking questions about pubic hair. When Congress is reduced to picking through salacious details, says Arizona Senator John McCain, a Republican, "we're all tarred with the same brush."

What complicates the matter is that Starr has legal justifications for including anatomically correct details in his report. To back up any claim that the President committed perjury, the independent counsel needs to show that Clinton lied when he told lawyers for Paula Jones that he and Lewinsky did not have sex, at least not by the light of the definition of sex approved by the judge, which was more technical than the instructions for hooking up a VCR. Since that definition hinged upon specifics of who touched what and what went where, Starr will need to spell out just those things. That was apparently why he secretly called Lewinsky back to his offices on Aug. 26 for two hours of wrap-up questioning so explicit it was the verbal equivalent of a cavity search. The questions involved such intimate specifics that Starr arranged for all lawyers and stenographers in the room to be women.

Another variable in this dangerous game is the question of how long to play it. Polls say most Americans want the matter brought to a quick conclusion. A lot of Democrats would be happy to oblige. The popularity of the censure option, which the White House is not yet ready to accept, is growing fast among Democrats in Congress, especially the ones who face re-election. Cautiously triumphant Republicans are in no mood to let the President off the hook that fast. When Senate majority leader Trent Lott said last week that he didn't think censure was enough, he was signaling that no quick end was in sight.

In the devastating 25-minute denunciation of Clinton that he delivered last week on the Senate floor, Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut stopped short of calling for censure, limiting himself to a more ambiguous call for a "public rebuke." All the same, a stunned White House is worried that his speech, in which Lieberman roasted Clinton's behavior as "immoral" and "disgraceful," will break the spell that has held most Democrats back from putting real distance between themselves and the President. Two other highprofile Democrats, New York's Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nebraska's Bob Kerrey, followed Lieberman to the podium to say they agreed with him. Lieberman made his speech despite appeals from White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and Senate minority leader Tom Daschle that he hold off, at least until the President had returned from his trip abroad. But afterward Daschle came up and put his arm around Lieberman.

In the charged atmosphere of Washington, the most worrisome possibility for everybody is a dirty war in which the two sides start outing each other on sexual capers of every kind. For months there have been hints from Clinton's defenders that if his personal life was fair game, Republicans could find their own lives dragged into the sport. On Larry King Live two weeks ago, the President's brother Roger saw fit to observe that "some of the political people...had best watch themselves because of the old 'glass house' story. Be very careful." In the online magazine Salon, a Clinton corner in cyberspace, an unidentified "close ally of the President" said White House hard liners wanted to go after the personal past of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, majority leader Dick Armey and Indiana Representative Dan Burton, the unblushing Clinton hater who not long ago called the President a "scumbag," and also chairs the House committee that has been investigating the Democratic campaign-finance scandals.

So there was a shudder around Washington last week when Burton abruptly announced to the press that he and his wife had been "separated" three times during their 38-year marriage. The Congressman said he made the announcement because Vanity Fair magazine was preparing a tell-all profile that he insisted had been inspired by the White House. At a town meeting in Indiana last week, he hinted to constituents that there would be more to tell. "If something comes up that you read about that you think Danny shouldn't have done," he said, "I will own up to it." By the end of the week, Burton had owned up to the Indianapolis Star what Indiana political circles had been buzzing about for years: that he had fathered an illegitimate son in the early 1980s. He told the paper he wanted to go public to deflect attention from the boy and his mother.

Burton offered no evidence for his complaint that the White House was behind the story, a notion that a spokeswoman for Vanity Fair dismissed as "ludicrous." And the charge gave senior Clinton adviser Rahm Emanuel the happy chance to deny it with the observation that the White House considers the private life of public figures to be "off limits." But a collective chill went across the capital. "There is real anxiety among House Republicans," says a G.O.P. leadership source. "They realize that none of us is without sin. And most of them are obscure; they've never had to deal with intense scrutiny from the national media."

To say nothing of a media in the promiscuous mood to which the Lewinsky story has brought it. Last week Fred Barnes, an editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, remarked on Fox News that the buzz of the moment in Washington concerns whether Clinton has had sexual relations with a second intern. "If he has," he offered, "that will certainly be dynamite." What he didn't offer was a word of evidence, the thing that used to distinguish reporters and commentators from gossip columnists. Three days later, Bill Press, the onetime chairman of California's Democratic Party who now represents the left on CNN's Crossfire, tried out a new line about Representative Burton. He asked former Burton staff member David Bossie if he thought Burton should resign if he had had sex with a congressional intern. When opposing TV-belligerent Pat Buchanan attacked Press for trafficking in "sleaze," Press replied that "it's a rumor among some journalists," but the next day he apologized for asking the question.

Clinton's defenders are enraged by the prospect that Starr's report will be a dirty book about the President's personal life. The emerging White House counter-strategy is to refuse comment on all stories about sex and hit back strictly against Starr's attempts to catch the President in perjury and obstruction of justice. But a legalistic defense that says the President was telling the truth because what he did wasn't exactly sex is unlikely to go far with most Americans. They figure that sex is sex, no matter what the lawyers say. That makes it all the more likely that the President's side will have to resort to a defense that accuses the other side of sheer hypocrisy about sex because the President's accusers have secrets of their own. And that could mean a lot more private lives won't be so private before all this is through.

--Reported by James Carney, Karen Tumulty and Michael Weisskopf/Washington and Jay Branegan with the President

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: September 14, 1998

Now Say It Like You Mean It
The Politics Of Yuck
Topic A
News, Newser, Newsest
The Tonic Of Peace
Lost Leaders
Bummed Like Me
A Senator and Old Friend Delivers a Stern Sermon
Holding Their Own
Can Tony Williams Save D.C.?


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