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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Is There A Way Out?

The search is on for someone who can find a punishment that fits the crime, and then sell it to all sides

By Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

Time cover

(TIME, September 28) -- The way people die in caves is by going forward too fast, into wedges that trap them, rivers that drown them and mazes that defeat them until they give up or starve. The journey to what Bill Clinton called the "rock-bottom truth" feels now like a headlong descent, a process no one can control, toward resolutions no one can assure. There are Republicans looking for treasure down here--political power embedded for years to come. And there are Democrats looking for someone to blame. But for the rest of us, there is too little light, too little air, no compass, no ropes: this is not a spectator sport. We just want someone to show us the way out.

That message was not lost on Washington last week, which is why over the weekend a very seasoned, fairly anxious council of Wise Men pushed hard to devise an exit strategy. The ground was shifting so fast under their feet that some thought it might be only a matter of days before the process passes a point of no return. The negotiators included some who just a week ago thought Clinton might yet escape punishment; now their main question was whether any compromise could head off resignation or impeachment.

For all the talk of censure--a public scolding in the Well of the House--these men knew that they had to go further. The currency was already devalued to the point that they needed a whole new category of discipline. By Saturday afternoon, censure was out and "sanctions" were in, which would include financial reparations for misuse of government resources during the past eight months and a demand that Clinton settle all legal issues with independent counsel Ken Starr, with an eye toward some admission of wrongdoing. Among those at the table or on the phone were White House officials, former Clinton aides Lloyd Cutler and Leon Panetta, top Democrats in Congress and their lawyers, including longtime Democratic counselor Bob Bauer. White House officials carefully leaked that the President has not yet agreed to accept a deal--a time-tested signal that negotiations were under way and a bargaining position established.

But none of that mattered unless they could get all sides to come to the table. It is challenge enough to perfect the punishment to fit the crime but even harder to craft it in a way that satisfies all the needs for justice from those who would have to bless it: the vengeful Republicans, the bitter Democrats, the rebellious Clinton, the righteous Ken Starr. And that wasn't very likely. The only glimmer of hope from the Republican side was coming from moderates who were worried about a backlash against the next ugly data dump, a spectacle that was sure to get worse this week. The party-line vote to release the videotape of Clinton's grand jury testimony gave Democrats their opening. Never mind that two-thirds of them had voted to release everything the week before. The minute the Judiciary committee recessed, Democratic members began challenging the fairness of the proceedings because it was their only lever in a legal matter where the facts were not on their side.

In the days after Starr's report was released, Clinton's approval ratings actually rose--and so did his chances for being impeached. So there was no telling who would be most hurt by the next round. Much of what was offensive in the original Starr report is tame compared with the raw material, if that's possible. This week comes the Complete Clinton Concordance: the videotape of his grand jury testimony; a transcript of Monica Lewinsky's appearance; Clinton's deposition in the Paula Jones suit, letters Lewinsky sent to Clinton, and on and on to 2,800 pages. Tucked inside were Monica's most graphic accounts of her sexual episodes with the President and the effect they had on her; blessed with what seems like a phonographic memory, she provided Starr with a voluptuous libretto of their phone-sex encounters.

But really graphic sex is one thing: really graphic lying is another. As of Monday morning, any terms for any deal would be negotiated against the background music of Clinton's August testimony, playing continuously on every network. It is for this more than anything else that most voters would need to forgive Clinton, since it has much less to do with his conduct as a husband or employer and everything to do with the conduct of his presidency and the enforcement of the law. In the days before his grand jury appearance, just about every last citizen had sent him a postcard asking him to tell the truth at all costs, and most promised to forgive him if he did. The stakes could not have been higher, for this was his last chance: he could maybe brush away lies in his Paula Jones deposition, even the bald public denials and seven months of excruciating evasion. But by August most Americans had concluded that he had fooled around, made their peace with it and just wanted him, for once, to come clean when he put his hand on a Bible and faced the grand jury.

And that's why what followed is so hard to excuse. It's less what he says than how. "I have not had sex with her as I defined it," Clinton told prosecutors at one point in the testimony. Asked if he was ever alone with Lewinsky, he said, "It depends on how you define alone... There were a lot of times when we were alone, but I never really thought we were." Asked if his lawyer Bob Bennett had been correct when he assured the judge in January that "there is absolutely no sex of any kind," Clinton said that was true because "it depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

It was just that kind of chronic weaseling that led the two top Democrats in Congress to open the week with a primal scream. Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle got together last Monday morning to warn the White House in the most public way possible that unless they reeled in the lawyers and stopped all this "legally accurate" nonsense, the road to impeachment would be short and slick. "Dick and Tom went public," said a colleague, "because the private counseling wasn't working."

That doesn't mean they weren't both trying to help out. To keep tabs on his skittish members, minority leader Gephardt has divided the Democratic caucus into 10 groups and has been meeting with them regularly to help lower the boil. They're all worried, but about different things: freshmen haven't had the chance to bring home pork-barrel projects; members fighting to survive in marginal races are sifting through their polling data trying to figure out which way to go. Safer veterans need to be bridled before any more of them call for Clinton's head, and members of the black caucus, who by and large have safe seats but great misgivings about the whole thing, need to be given regular opportunities to vent. To make sure members don't openly criticize their colleagues who have to take a different path for their own political survival, Gephardt has been mixing and matching members of these 10 groups so that each can understand what's behind the views of the others. "He has made it clear that Democratic members are his first priority," says an attendee at one of the small meetings. "The President is his second loyalty."

However much Gephardt may be longing for order, his is an uphill fight. Democrats who feel that Clinton is a serial traitor to the party, shutting them out of his budget deals with Republicans, hanging them out to dry on difficult votes, bullying them into accepting tax hikes and then denouncing them for it, going over their heads at every opportunity, are not hastening to his rescue now. Californian Henry Waxman, a plausible candidate to support Clinton, summed up the mood: "He's an embarrassment to people in his own party. Even if it's not impeachable, no one wants to defend the President."

And so by day the President went about his business, but by night he worked the phones, and his staff members spun round the clock trying to keep Democratic lawmakers in line. On Tuesday, House Democratic leaders met with White House aides Larry Stein, John Podesta and Erskine Bowles, all of whom appeared to participants to be "in shock." All they could do was to keep saying they were sorry, complained one Democratic member, and reiterate that they understood what House Democrats were feeling. It was contrition by proxy. For much of the week there was no strategy, no guidance and no evidence that the President would drop the legal argument that he didn't technically lie. "They don't know what they're doing," said a member bluntly.

There was enough momentum, even before the video hit the airwaves, for the logic of resignation to penetrate Clinton's inner circle. It's not fair, it's not right that Clinton should be impeached, one longtime adviser said. It's not fair, it's not right that he should be run out of office by an independent counsel with an unlimited purse and a partisan, moralistic bent. But "what should and what will happen are two different things," said the adviser. Clinton might survive, the adviser says, but the cost to the party and to the issues and interests for which the President stands would be too much to bear. "He can pull it out through force of personality and circumstance," says the adviser. "The problem is, even if that happens, people don't see an end, and the end they see is not a good one." One reason it was hard for anyone to round up Democratic elders to help save Clinton was that many of them too think privately that he should resign.

So the White House called in the one team it knew the lawmakers could not ignore: the lobbyists and moneymen who grease the wheels of re-election. The team includes Washington's most persuasive operators, men who normally earn $400 an hour to bend laws for corporate benefit. These men are themselves denizens of the Congress, outsiders who move easily through the ranks of Democrats to gather intelligence and who raise enough campaign money for candidates to get their attention when they need it.

Deputy chief of staff John Podesta assembled the team, including former Clinton Hill lobbyists Howard Paster and Pat Griffin, as well as Tommy Boggs, the king of Washington lobbyists. In regular contact with lawmakers and their top staffs, members of the President's shadow lobbying enterprise are in a good position to test Clinton's fortunes. Separately, businessman Terry McAuliffe, Clinton's close friend and principal fund raiser, is known to have phoned hundreds of Democratic financial supporters to rally support for the President. They, in turn, are calling in their support to Democratic lawmakers. And it would be hard for lawmakers to miss the implicit message: You want my money? We want your vote. Or at least, hold your fire before all the evidence is in. This has been especially important with Senators and Congressmen in close races who are rumored to be thinking of calling on Clinton to resign.

The prospect of Clinton's testimony and another couple of thousand pages of pornography horrified them. "I don't want to look," says Virginia Democrat James Moran. "I feel dirty when I read this stuff. I feel as though when someone walks into the room it's something I should throw under the desk." South Carolina's Ernest Hollings told fellow Senator Joseph Biden: "Joe, I can't even talk about this with another man."

And that is just among Democrats. The possibility of judicious, bipartisan proceedings dissolved when Republicans accused the President's allies of declaring open season on anyone who presumed to sit in judgment of him. The disclosure of Chairman Henry Hyde's adultery of 30 years past in the online magazine Salon represented a knife in the heart of compromise. The House G.O.P. leadership fired off a letter to the FBI asking it to investigate the White House for trying to intimidate lawmakers, without being able to prove it was behind it. The White House put out frantic calls to its Hill Democrats trying to assure them that it hadn't leaked the story--Podesta called Hyde himself--but as spokesman Mike McCurry admitted, the perception in Washington is that "the White House lies about everything; our credibility is zero."

The prospect of total war, with all its collateral damage, was enough to bring some of the leaders up short. By Thursday afternoon top Democrats began working secretly on the escape plan that would force the President to accept some severe punishment short of impeachment, in return for some protection against prosecution once he leaves office. Selling that deal would have to involve the help of the permanent graybeards on both sides--men like Bob Dole, who has put in a call to Clinton already, Bob Strauss, Colin Powell, George Mitchell--men who have the moral horsepower to haul their crankier colleagues along.

It is already clear that Republicans will not accept any punishment that does not inflict some pain and suffering: Clinton would have to apologize once more, probably in the Well of the House or somewhere on Congress's turf; admit that he lied under oath, caused the nation, the government and the polity great damage; pledge to fix it with specific bipartisan proposals.

But it would not stop there: it is no use letting the President remain in office if the government can't function with him there. So a thorough housecleaning would have to come next. Republicans may demand that anyone found to have leaked damaging material about Hyde or other lawmakers be fired. Or Clinton may have to do something really hard: ask for the resignation of the fixers, the enablers, people who have served him most faithfully, like his longtime confidant Bruce Lindsey.

Finally, to run the Clinton Regency, the White House would need to draw back into action a blue-chip crew comparable to the one enlisted by Ronald Reagan to save his presidency after Iran-contra in 1986. As Powell, Howard Baker, Frank Carlucci and Ken Duberstein did then, the presence of Democratic veterans such as Leon Panetta in a return engagement, George Mitchell, Republican Pentagon chief William Cohen, perhaps outgoing Florida Governor Lawton Chiles would reassure the nation and Congress that the President is running a grownup shop, not a frat house or a cathouse, and would have their help in doing the nation's business.

Clinton needs two things in exchange. He gets to keep his job, and he gets immunity from prosecution. One person involved in the weekend maneuvers ruled out any deal that left the President "in legal, criminal jeopardy." Clinton will never confess as long as Starr keeps his two grand juries in session and refuses to rule out prosecuting Clinton once he leaves office.

But persuading Starr to back off is no mean challenge. The President and his aides have been attacking the prosecutor for years. Clinton's lawyer David Kendall persuaded a federal judge to launch two investigations into whether Starr leaked grand jury evidence to reporters. One way Kendall could extend the olive branch to Starr: drop the complaint.

If Starr cannot be persuaded to sanction a deal, there are two ways around him--one short, one much longer. Congress could grant Clinton immunity from prosecution in exchange for a deal. Such protections have gone before to people like Oliver North in exchange for their cooperation. Starr might not like that outcome, but there wouldn't be much he could do about it. Or Clinton might be persuaded to take his chances in court after leaving office, betting that any jury would feel that he had already paid his debt. If he is lucky, if he has not completely exhausted the country's reserves of compassion and patience, he may even get a chance to vindicate the choice made by those who are willing to show him some mercy.

At this crucial moment it is not clear that anyone with stature also has the means and the will to nail down a deal. Early last week Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, a friend of Starr's, tried to lay the foundation; he spent 20 minutes on the phone with Clinton, and though he didn't speak to Starr, has a good sense of how the guy ticks. Hatch imagined that the country might be spared a year of unnecessary public hanging if Clinton confessed more publicly and contritely than before, if the House agreed to a censure, and if Starr could somehow be compelled to bless the deal. But this attempt at arbitration did not go far before Hatch's more conservative Senate colleagues rebuked him in private for his attempt at peacemaking. Though there is considerable risk of reprisal from his own party, Hatch says he won't stop trying.

Hyde and Speaker Gingrich have it within their power to call a truce, but that's not in their interest. The problem here is that everything is already going their way: Republicans now talk of winning 15 to 20 new seats in November, a prospect that has the faithful and the financiers wanting to barbecue Clinton for at least a few more weeks. The party's social-conservative flank, meanwhile, is opposed to mercy on ideological grounds, determined that the President must be spanked and spanked hard. But if the G.O.P. drags Clinton's carcass around the arena too many more times, the favorable trend in the polls will come to an abrupt halt. And so the Speaker sits tight, sounding statesmanlike, careful not to overplay his hand. If the release of the videotape doesn't backfire this week, all he has to do is hang on through Election Day, betting that a bigger margin in the House next year will give him more leverage with the President's lawyers after November.

Even if the Wise Men can agree on a deal, they still have to sell it to the man it is designed to save. There is no visible evidence that Clinton has learned much from all this, other than the need to demonstrate conspicuously that he has learned something from it. Like any negotiator, he won't give up anything now that he can use later to extract concessions. He has stopped telling his friends that a censure deal is out of the question. He may drop the legal jitterbugging, but he's not ready to admit that he lied in either of his testimonies. That can come later. "Why should he give up perjury now if that's where we want to end up?" said one presidential associate.

For all the moist apologies of the past month, Clinton's conduct is a more reliable measure of his mood than his shaded confessions. He has argued that his actions are good for our children, as he sets an example on seeking forgiveness, good for our families and, most recently, good for his party. As he told donors at a Democratic dinner in New York City, Democrats should be grateful for his disgrace, because "adversity" is good for turnout and fund raising. Most important, he is still torturing the language and the law. As a White House aide explains it, he knew what he was doing, and not doing, with Monica, and feels that he acted, and answered, so that he was indeed legally accurate. "He will go to his grave believing he didn't perjure himself," says the aide.

Anyone hoping to persuade Clinton to change his legal strategy had to get past David Kendall first, and last week there was no shortage of people out for his hide. Some Clinton allies were arguing that Kendall's advice has been a disaster: if the President was going to keep stonewalling, he should never have gone before that grand jury in the first place; if he absolutely had to testify, Kendall should never have let it be videotaped. And once all those steps had been taken, the last thing Kendall should have done was go before reporters and try to explain the President's testimony to them, as he did two weeks ago.

But Kendall defenders note that he is the only person who has to focus exclusively on the client's legal jeopardy--and that client is himself a lawyer who likes to overrule his advisers. Clinton's choice of Kendall was a sign that he would never be taken prisoner. Kendall's firm, Williams & Connolly, prides itself on practicing "Green Beret law." The firm's founder Edward Bennett Williams used to say that in life, "every effort is marked down at the end as a win or a loss." Williams called it "contest living."

That whole attitude does not leave much room for compromise. Within the White House, these are not days of wise judgment and thoughtful debate. It is clear to those close to him that Clinton's game is gone, his instincts dead, his psychological state a mystery. He is fearful, unsure of what to do, unable to answer questions about resignation with anything like his earlier conviction. Meetings with his Cabinet and lawmakers have gone uncharacteristically badly.

Even if staff members weren't so distracted, it would still be hard to put together a plausible strategy for dealing with Congress for the next six weeks, as both sides try to agree on how to spend about a trillion dollars next year. Clinton vowed that any budget surplus should be devoted to "saving Social Security first," and so he ruled out any new farm aid. But everything is negotiable now. It's "cash and carry," as one Democratic lobbyist put it. So when potential supporters come asking for money, Clinton is not in a very strong position to bargain--and that's even with members of his own party.

And above all, the White House has little understanding of the motives and moods that are now driving decisions on Capitol Hill. Clinton is drunk on the polls, without knowing how little sustenance they bring. With six weeks to go before the elections, lawmakers do not care what 270 million Americans are saying about keeping Clinton in office, they care what a majority of the roughly 75,000 likely voters in their particular districts are saying. They care about the 30 to 40 House races and 10 Senate seats that are up for grabs. They care about who takes control of the legislatures that will redraw the congressional districts in ways that could keep the Democrats out of power for a generation.

Every other day, the White House runs up to the Hill with a new poll showing that voters overwhelmingly favor the President's agenda, that they don't care about his sex life and that they don't want him to leave office. But you can hardly blame Democrats for being unconvinced that any of this matters to them. "About a million gallons of toxic waste have been dumped on the soil," says a senior Democratic aide on Capitol Hill. "Yeah, you're measuring the groundwater right now, but that stuff's seeping in."

Even before the release of the Clinton videotape and its endless companion volumes, the prospect of an impeachment inquiry had become all but certain, and once the process happens, even Democratic elders predict, Clinton faces a 75% chance that he will be impeached by the full House and put on trial in the Senate. Now, they warn, the shape of the deal will be changing with each day that passes. He still has a chance of being sanctioned in exchange for immunity. But as this drags out, the price of immunity goes up, Republicans say. Already, the no-quarter wing has said that protection can be exchanged for one thing only: resignation.

--Reported by Jay Branegan, John F. Dickerson, Karen Tumulty and Michael Weisskopf/Washington

HOLDING THE FORT, BARELY

The President's inner circle, exhausted after months of crisis management, is being reshuffled, but some outsiders think an even bigger shakeup may be necessary. For now, these men are in the eye of the storm:

Greg Craig -- The veteran Washington lawyer--and Clinton's old law-school buddy--came in last week to be point man on the scandal

David Kendall -- As chief architect of Clinton's legal strategy, Kendall is under growing fire from all sides, but still has his client's confidence

John Podesta -- The deputy chief of staff-- wishful heir to Bowles--is assembling a team of lobbyists and moneymen to keep tabs on Hill Dems

Erskine Bowles -- The trusted chief of staff was planning to leave when the Lewinsky scandal broke. Eight painful months later, he still wants out


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: September 28, 1998

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