We, the jury
Starr has forced Americans to reckon with him, their President and their values. No one knows how the conversation will end
By Nancy Gibbs
"There is substantial and credible information supporting the following eleven possible grounds for impeachment: 1. President Clinton lied under oath in his civil case when he denied a sexual affair, a sexual relationship, or sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky..."
You could almost hear the country go quiet as it started to turn the pages. After eight months of watching a grand jury at work, we've become one. Court is in session around the dining-room table, at work and at church and, ultimately, in the halls of Congress. For month after month as this story unfolded, the American people have shown their sense of fairness: pressed for their judgments by pollsters, they said, again and again, let's give him the benefit of the doubt until all the evidence is in. They know that juries are supposed to go slow, weigh the arguments and do justice, no matter how long it takes. When the defendant is the President and the charges without precedent, the ultimate test for him is no less a test of us.
And so on Friday, in the breathtaking opening arguments from both sides, the combatants placed before us a choice between core values: between privacy, which has become so fragile, and morality, which has become so debased. Kenneth Starr and Bill Clinton, hunter and quarry, one wielding his scorching flashlight, the other his anointed cigar: Which troubles people more? One prosecutor, unaccountable, brought the full force of the legal system to bear in probing private sexual behavior; one President, implacably evasive, drew on the full weaponry of his office simply to hold on to it. The verdicts the American people will render in the weeks to come are less legal judgments than moral and political ones about both sides, which is why the case finally arrived last week where it ultimately belongs: in the people's hands.
Holding those hands for dear life are members of Congress, who set off last weekend to their districts, trying to figure out where we are. They know that a majority of Americans have believed for months that the President was lying when he denied an affair, a failing that they have always distinguished from his conduct in office. But that may not have prepared voters for the experience of paging through the sad, smutty chronicle that Starr has provided in his effort to remind voters that this was no ordinary case of adultery, that the lies Clinton told came in front of a judge and jury. Many will throw down the text in disgust, both at what the President did with Monica Lewinsky and what Starr did to expose it.
Those who read on will be forced to make judgments. Of Starr, some have already concluded that he was carrying out his sworn duty in the face of a conspiracy to stop him; others argue all he proved in the end was his own willingness to humiliate the President and horrify the public with a report so gratuitously detailed and pornographic that it warranted warning stickers and a plain brown wrapper.
As to Clinton, confessed sinner, the choices are harder; for in him the public and private are utterly fused. It is one thing to engage in a private affair between consenting adults. It is another to have a 22-year-old intern performing oral sex on the President while he talks by phone to a Congressman about the fate of Americans stationed in Bosnia. It is one thing to turn the Lincoln Bedroom into a campaign ATM machine, another to turn the Oval Office into a hot-sheet motel. It is one thing for the President to invoke the cleansing powers of repentance. It is another to suggest that he deserves to serve out his term so that he can help teach our children about integrity and show by example that "God can change us and make us strong at the broken places."
Before it is all over, the really hard test won't be whether legal scholars reach some consensus on whether Clinton's conduct met the standard for high crimes and misdemeanors; or whether Republicans would rather a weakened President Clinton serve out his term than an energized President Gore; or whether the commentariat declares that Clinton is a dead man. The hard test is whether in 50 years Americans will look back at 1998 and say that we raised the bar for public office so high that only saints need apply, or that we dropped it so low that moral authority fell out of the job description.
Ken Starr's long journey down the dirt road takes the reader past things most would rather not see, to places they would rather not go. The most shocking aspect of the report was the sheer quantity and raw quality of sexual detail. Starr's grand jurors received this evidence drop by drop, day by day; last week it came in a torrent over the wires in an instant, flooding the circuits of conscience and calculation and taste. Starr takes readers through the entire history of Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky, from their first flirtations during the government shutdown in the fall of 1995, when the interns had the run of the West Wing because the grownups had to stay home. Lewinsky ran into him in the hall on her way to the ladies' room. She lifted her jacket to show him her thong underwear. He asked if she wanted to see his private office. And an affair was born.
With that begins the narrative of 10 sexual encounters, which, according to Lewinsky's testimony, included oral sex, oral-anal sex, phone sex and much mutual groping--through phone calls, or in hallways, on Easter Sunday, while Hillary was out of town--a catalog aimed at demolishing Clinton's claim that his sworn denial of sexual relations was "legally accurate." Starr's version left members of Congress expressing a desire to take a shower after they read it.
The volume of sexual detail represents an enormous danger to the White House; everything whispered, rumored and wondered about this story now goes directly into the public consciousness about Clinton. He is immune to filters now. And so the details themselves needed to be turned into a weapon against Starr, which is exactly what presidential advisers began to do even before his report was released. White House aides charged that Starr had gone way too far in including so much embarrassing detail, all designed to do nothing less than force the President from office one way or another. Including all those blue footnotes, the Clinton team argues, was simply "part of a hit-and-run smear campaign." The President, they argued in their rebuttal on Saturday, had already admitted that he had had an improper relationship and apologized repeatedly for it. That may have been a sin, but it was no crime. "The referral is so loaded with irrelevant and unnecessary graphic and salacious allegations that only one conclusion is possible: its principal purpose is to damage the President."
Starr, in turn, has had his response to this charge ready and waiting for weeks: the President's evasive testimony made the detail essential to proving the case for perjury. Though the President promised at his Friday-morning prayer breakfast not to hide behind legalisms, that is precisely what his lawyers put forward at a news conference that very afternoon, when they tried to argue--once again--that lying did not necessarily constitute perjury. Monica's recollections of their activities would clearly fall under the definition of sexual relations, which the President denied having in his deposition for the Paula Jones case. So the President's lawyer, David Kendall, offered this explanation last week: "It may well be that people's recollections differ. That does not necessarily mean that one is lying."
The other pillar of Starr's case has to do with the whole attempt to cover up the behavior Starr chronicles in Part 1. Americans may be troubled by the amount of time and energy Clinton spent last winter helping Lewinsky find a job, return gifts he had given her and prepare for her testimony in the Jones case. Clinton's lawyers maintain that in each case these were innocent activities. But Starr's report argues that with each effort, Clinton was working to conceal the affair from lawyers in the Jones case and thereby derail their lawsuit, and then derail Starr's own investigation when it got under way in January.
Clinton could not have pulled off this deception alone. In fact, given all the people in a position to see Monica coming and going delivering papers, pizza and presents, Clinton appears to have been surrounded by the most supine courtiers since Claudius. Until last week his secretary, Betty Currie, was portrayed as a warm-hearted yet harmless bystander in the Oval Office; the Starr report suggests that she was something more than that. Currie, as much as Vernon Jordan, emerges as the President's co-conspirator in covering up the affair, which may help explain why she testified five times. Clinton denied putting Currie up to these chores; and Currie could not, almost without exception, recall if he did.
Starr's report was so novelistic that reading it had the effect of redrawing the characters we have watched now for so long. It is above all Monica's story, breathless, girlish, reckless, clueless. And yet it was Clinton who had the most to lose: Monica's popularity ratings have been close to the single digits for months, while the President, riding a muscular market and peaceable times, seemed invulnerable to redefinition no matter how lurid the rumors of his personal conduct. But that was a judgment made about a public man: Starr has now introduced his wanton private shadow, and asks us to reckon with both. There is Clinton, servicing a major donor on the phone as Monica lurks nearby. There he is plotting chance encounters in the hall so he and Monica could slip into the private study, while indirectly warning the men who guard him that indiscretion will cost them their jobs.
For all of Lewinsky's fantasies of a blossoming emotional relationship, a merry tumble into love with "Handsome," the account portrays the President as a varsity cad. He had his first lengthy conversation with her after their sixth sexual encounter. Time and again, Clinton would interrupt Monica's cheery chatter by kissing her, "kind of to shut me up." In one telephone conversation he told her he wasn't interested in hearing about her job problems so he could quickly move on to sexually arousing banter. According to her testimony, he appeased her restless heart by holding out the prospect of a life together after the White House, musing about his marriage and whether he would be alone in three years. In the most secure 18-acre complex on earth, the only place he could find some privacy was in a windowless hallway outside his office, leaning against a doorjamb, because, he told her, it was easier on his back. When she found out from a White House guard that he was in the Oval Office entertaining the attractive Eleanor Mondale and stormed off in fury, he called her later to say, "It's none of your business."
A President beloved by his people and his party would be staggered by the blow the report dealt him. But Clinton went into Friday morning already reeling. Whatever his shortcomings as a person, many fellow Democrats figured long ago, he was at least a gifted athlete, an ambidextrous operator who could caper and maneuver and keep his feet dry. It would be nice, of course, to have a grownup in the Oval Office, but voters have settled twice now for something less than that because he seemed so good at the job that kept tripping others up. And yet here he was, with his very survival at stake--the thing he cared most about--and he suddenly couldn't find his footing in one failed apology after another. Lawmakers, even those who never much liked Clinton but respected his talent, were spooked by the sight of Houdini drowning in his chains.
Then there was the sheer impact of his recklessness and arrogance. He had chosen to seduce, under the eyes of his staff and security detail, not only an employee half his age but one who was indiscreet from the start, sending mushy notes by messenger, telling her mom and her friends and her therapist, all but skywriting over the Capitol that she had bagged the Big Guy. It's not comfortable to be a politician riding the coattails of a man with a death wish. Among the requirements of his apologies to fellow Democrats was the assurance that there were no more high heels to drop.
With Clinton judgment in tatters and his skills in question, it made sense to ask the next question: Well, if he can't retrieve these things, if he can't put those talents to use making our lives better or safer, and if he sincerely cares about preserving his policies, then why not do the honorable thing?
The notion of resignation, dismissed as unfair and inconceivable once the overwrought January days had passed, rumbled back into the national conversation. Even before the report arrived, lawmakers were surprised by how quickly the mood was changing. They came back to work last week after spending some time at home and getting an earful. Real people, the lawmakers learned, were sick and tired of turning off the TV when the news came on and hearing their kids use "Monica" like a cussword. They kept asking each other how they were supposed to explain to their constituents why the President of the U.S. was allowed to keep his job after admitting to behavior that would get a high school principal fired. Even Republicans like Representative Fred Upton, a moderate Michigander, called for Clinton's resignation after being asked over and over by voters what he could do about it. When Newt Gingrich heard about his colleague's announcement on returning from several weeks out of town, even the Speaker could hardly believe it. "Wow, things have really changed," he told a friend.
With each passing day, the situation became more and more uncertain. "You've got your clear attack dogs. They love it, they don't mind living in glass houses and throwing rocks," said Mark Sanford, a South Carolina Republican. "But most of us feel uncomfortable in the role of judge. It isn't exactly why we came to Congress. We're off center and edgy." Democratic lawmakers who had been suggesting privately for weeks that the President step down found new allies in corridor conversations and even in leadership meetings. At Clinton's appearance Wednesday in Florida, the audience inside was supportive, while the hecklers outside waved posters: DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR DAUGHTERS ARE TONIGHT? CLINTON IS IN TOWN; IT'S MORALITY, STUPID; RESIGN, YOU SWINE.
At the White House, spirits were lodged somewhere in the sub-basement. The President was isolated from all but a handful of aides, and they admitted that he is past taking much direction on these matters. At one low point, he complained that the only people sticking with him were the black members of Congress. It is a B-team White House now, with the best leaving and the ones who remain lacking the stature to tell the President what to do, much less how. Attempts to find a straight-talking TV lawyer to defend the President continue to fizzle, with three and then four candidates having refused the job. Of the current crowd, a former high-ranking White House official says, "They were all kind of standing around waiting to see if he would ever come to Jesus, waiting to see where his head was. The staff took its lead from him." In fairness, too, staff members never knew what the facts were, and the lawyers wouldn't tell them. They had no choice but to wait for signs from the top. An aide, asked what the strategy is, said the President will continue to talk but won't pretend to change the subject; the White House knows this scandal is not going away. Then he paused and conceded, "I guess that's not a strategy. That's a philosophy."
The lack of clarity could be traced back to Clinton himself. Even as he embarked on his grovelthon--aides took to referring to CNN as the Contrition News Network--he signaled in private that his anger still trumps his sorrow. When he sat down with his Cabinet Thursday afternoon, for the first time since enlisting their support to defend him last January, he bared his soul and watered his eyes and shared some Scripture and defended his record in office. But when Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala suggested that "surely your personal behavior is as important as your policies," his face went red, and he slapped her down hard. "If you were judging on personal behavior and not policies," he snapped, "then Richard Nixon should have been elected in 1960, not John Kennedy." The room went silent. "It was clear that this guy did not want to hear any criticism," said an official familiar with the meeting.
If Clinton was having mixed success with his Cabinet, his stock was sinking even faster with his party on Capitol Hill. Clinton's official supporters, Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Dick Gephardt of Missouri, urged members to stay cool, but congressional aides were quick to acknowledge that their bosses were appalled by the President's behavior. Members were worried that they would be guilty by association--a chain the G.O.P. was beginning to forge in some ad campaigns in key districts. The widely cited Battleground poll released last week showed that Clinton's personal problems have elevated "moral and religious issues" to the top of the voters' agenda. They tie with crime and drugs as the No. 1 problem facing the nation. The poll also showed that scandal is discouraging traditional Democratic voters from voting. That fueled a growing fear that the Republicans could pick up enough seats in the House and as many as six Senate slots to make their power exponentially greater, impervious to filibuster. White House aides fanned out among lobbyists and labor unions and financiers last week to shore up support, having backers call lawmakers and urge them to stand by the President. Most of them just kept quiet.
That dynamic explained why, for all the professions of decorum, Republicans were playing for keeps and Democrats were trying to make it all a fairness issue. It was hard to square Gingrich's talk about sober bipartisanship with the impeachment war room set up by Republican whip Tom Delay, who has already called for Clinton to resign. Staff members from his office had compiled binders full of material on impeachment procedures. By waging a phony war over whether to give Clinton an advance look at Starr's report, Democrats laid the groundwork for a claim that the whole process ahead will be a show trial. "I feel that the Republicans were so wrongheaded not to let the President have a couple of days to review this document," said Democrat Henry Waxman, who nevertheless voted for the resolution to release the report. However deplorable Clinton's conduct, the hurry to send the report out over the Internet, he said, looked to him like "a clear partisan effort at railroading."
Having asked for 48 hours, the White House managed to release its own prebuttal by Friday morning, charging in 78 pages that Starr had unleashed a one-sided, salacious screed that failed to find any impeachable offenses relating to Whitewater or Travelgate or the FBI files or anything under his original mandate, and instead focused on sexual misdeeds for which the President had already apologized. The second rebuttal, on Saturday, again blasted Starr's "biased recounting, skewed analysis and unconscionable overreaching." But a rebuttal could only go as far as the facts allowed: it did little to combat the overall picture of what a White House aide described as "a pathetic predator who is just depraved." And to go down the road of contesting each tawdry detail is to get into a game, White House aides say, they could never win.
The President's approval ratings held up the first night, but Friday is always an imperfect night to poll, and many people had not yet had any chance to digest even a summary of the report. By Saturday afternoon, Republicans seemed more troubled than certain of what to do next. Some were ready to take their assigned seats right away: "What has struck me is that if this is true, it'll be difficult for many members not to vote to impeach the President," said Florida's Bill McCollum, the third ranking Republican of the Judiciary Committee. "I think we're well beyond the option of censure. He could already be censured for what he admitted a few weeks ago. I don't know how anyone could possibly consider keeping him if he lied under oath, if he witness-tampered, suborned perjury--it doesn't matter what the subject matter was."
But other Republicans, anxious to avoid stridency in any form, began warily to name Clinton a likely survivor. Several said Starr had so overplayed the sex that it might ultimately undercut his argument and obscure what many Republicans had hoped would be more open-and-shut cases on obstruction. Few, if any, said Clinton looked easily impeachable on perjury charges, which most members of the leadership want to avoid anyway. However obvious it was that Clinton had repeatedly lied under oath, most were doubtful that the country would be willing to impeach Clinton over lies about sex in any form. Even rock-throwing Republicans like Georgia's Bob Barr stopped short of calling for Clinton's head right away: "I've called for an inquiry into impeachment, not impeachment." Most were left shaking their head. "This is just sad, distressing," Florida Republican Charles Canady noted softly. "On a personal level, I'm stunned by the picture of the President treating a young woman in such an exploitative way. And I'm also struck by the more serious issue of whether the President committed perjury before the grand jury."
Democrats, meanwhile, grumbled in grim disgust. After reading much of the Starr report, six-term Democrat David Skaggs of Colorado said, "I'm not sure we have a proper basis for impeachment, but I'm pretty sure the effectiveness of this presidency is pretty well destroyed." A six-term Midwestern lawmaker could barely finish his sentences as he tried to sum up his feelings, but he said he suspected Clinton would pull through. "I don't think this is impeachment, but that could turn as this report sinks in." Another Democrat said he was "personally outraged" by Clinton's behavior, but added that Starr lacked all sense of proportion. "He's trying to get Clinton by shocking the sensitivities of the public. There very well may be a snap-back reaction to this." California Democrat Zoe Lofgren said that for all the stomach-turning detail, Clinton doesn't appear to have crossed the bar for impeachment. "If you look at the supporting evidence, it's kind of shaky [on obstruction and tampering]. It's really about sex and lying about sex," she said.
With resignation unlikely and impeachment still unappealing, some on Capitol Hill were thinking that something in the middle might be best. Censuring the President in a symbolic vote by both houses has all the music of compromise that lawmakers love: it sends the moral signal that Clinton's behavior was wrong and unacceptable, but it stops well short of running him off. Both Republicans and Democrats could take their pound of flesh just a few weeks before the election, but without lowering themselves to Starr's level. Under the circumstances, says a presidential adviser, they would gladly settle for a censure. "If we could get a deal, we'd take it and run."
There is no guidance on the books about what constitutes actual grounds for impeachment: Nixon resigned before a Senate trial unfolded. But at the time, a third-year law student named John Whitehead interviewed a congressional candidate on the subject: "I think the definition should include any criminal acts, plus a willful failure of the President to fulfill his duty to uphold and execute the laws of the United States," the candidate replied. "The third factor that I think constitutes an impeachable offense would be willful, reckless behavior in office, just totally incompetent conduct in the office and the disregard of the necessities that the office demands." Years later, Whitehead would found the Rutherford Institute, which financed a sexual-harassment lawsuit aimed at toppling a President. And years later, the candidate would be sitting in the Oval Office, still parsing definitions.
--Reported by Jay Branegan, John F. Dickerson, Michael Duffy and Karen Tumulty/Washington
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Cover Date: September 21, 1998
An affair of state
The chattering class should just let go
What makes Clinton a survivor?
What exactly are 'high crimes and misdemeanors'?
In defense of Clinton
Enough to impeach?
The feminist lothario
What the guys think: Clinton's a screw-up
High crimes? Or just a sex cover-up?
The shadow of her smile
That old familiar uncharted territory