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A Senator and Old Friend Delivers a Stern Sermon

By Karen Tumulty/Washington

If there is anything the White House should have learned from the most searing scandals of recent history, it is to listen warily to the Senate Chamber--for that is where it is likely to hear the ominous rumble of truth. In Watergate it came in early 1974, when conservative Senator James L. Buckley called for Richard Nixon's resignation, starting the massive Republican defection that ultimately destroyed him. For the defiant and powerful Republican Senator Bob Packwood, it came in 1993, when freshman Democrat Patty Murray, speaking in a tremulous voice that barely carried to the galleries, found the words that moved the gentlemen of the club into ousting their colleague for sexual harassment.

Such a signal may have come for Bill Clinton last week, when one of his most reliable allies demolished the President's assertion that his relationship with Monica Lewinsky was a private matter and also made the case that it transcended the dry question of whether he broke the law. Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman--Clinton's friend of almost three decades, a politician whose own secure future would have allowed him to remain silent, a devout man with no apparent agenda beyond his sense of right and wrong--called the President's behavior immoral and damaging to the country. In words made all the more devastating by their careful measure, Lieberman said, "The transgressions the President has admitted to are too consequential for us to walk away and leave the impression for our children today and for our posterity tomorrow that what he acknowledges he did within the White House is acceptable behavior for our nation's leader."

It barely mattered that Lieberman stopped short of doing what he had been rumored to be planning, which was to call for a censure of the President. He resisted pleas by White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles to hold his tongue until Clinton's return from Russia and Ireland, and thus underscored for White House advisers the urgency of launching their own battle plan to stanch the rapid deterioration of their defenses on the Hill.

But what Lieberman's speech, with its sonorous biblical tone, seemed to prove is that the White House's emerging legalistic strategy--to shift the focus of the debate from what Clinton did to what insist he didn't do--is doomed to miss the big political mark. Even before independent counsel Ken Starr gets his report to Capitol Hill, the President's lawyers plan to submit their own defense on what they consider the legitimate questions of conspiracy and obstruction of justice, the questions raised by the "talking points" that Lewinsky gave her friend Linda Tripp, by the career help that Clinton and his allies gave Lewinsky, and by the gifts from Clinton to Lewinsky that she left for safekeeping with his secretary, Betty Currie.

Their tactic is one the White House employed to great effect last year during the campaign-finance scandal--the "prebuttal." The idea is to put forward information--even the damaging or not-so-believable tidbits--before the other side can, on the assumption that he who spins first has the advantage.

Details once fiercely guarded by the legal team are trickling out with a telling regularity. Sources say, for instance, that the relationship was briefer and more sporadic than generally assumed: Clinton and Lewinsky had intimate encounters about half a dozen times, starting in December 1995 or January 1996 and continuing through April of that year, with one final tryst in February 1997. Currie, reporters are now being told, took the subpoenaed gifts at Lewinsky's request, not the President's. According to this account, Currie stopped by Lewinsky's apartment to pick up a box labeled DO NOT DESTROY, which the secretary stored under her bed until its contents were turned over to Starr. Though the scenario conflicts with Lewinsky's version, and raises the obvious question of why Currie would agree to provide ministorage for Lewinsky without the implicit urging of her boss, it would help get Clinton off the hook for possible obstruction of justice. The President's lawyers also leaked word last week that Clinton had tried to put Lewinsky back on the White House payroll last year after she was exiled to the Pentagon by asking deputy director of White House personnel Marsha Scott to meet with her; they also said he made some tentative, unsuccessful inquiries to provide her with a favorable job recommendation. He might have been trying to buy her silence--but if he were really trying, wouldn't she have got the job, or at least the letter?

However successful the White House is in making the case that Clinton did not violate the law, Lieberman won't be the last to argue that the President's conduct should be judged by a higher standard. A West Coast Democratic Congressman says he was stunned last week when a six-year-old in his district was told that the lawmaker knew Clinton and asked, "Does he lie to you too?" And White House aides themselves cannot answer the question that most bothers his party now: Is there anything--or anyone--else?

--With reporting by Jay Branegan with Clinton and James Carney/Washington

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: September 14, 1998

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A Senator and Old Friend Delivers a Stern Sermon
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