Clinton's crisis: Testimonies to a sorry story

Sworn denials that should have silenced Bill Clinton's accusers have only prompted hotter pursuit. Lawyers have focused on the weakest witness
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IT ALL began innocuously enough last weekend with the President of the United States answering questions under oath about whether he had lured a young woman into a hotel room, dropped his trousers and invited her to perform oral sex.

The White House spokesman Mike McCurry described President Clinton's six-hour interrogation at the hands of Paula Jones' lawyers as a "distraction". The President, Mr McCurry said, had weightier matters on his agenda - Iraq, the financial crisis in the Far East, the impending visits of Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat, his State of the Union address.

What Mr McCurry didn't know was that his boss's grilling had gone beyond the little local difficulty of Ms Jones and her tediously familiar sexual harassment suit. Mr Clinton had also had to field questions about his reported affairs with Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky, an obscure former member of the junior White House staff. Mr McCurry, a diligent public servant, did not know that Mr Clinton had confessed that Ms Flowers had been his mistress, despite a public denial in 1991; nor did he know that Mr Clinton had been asked whether he had asked Ms Lewinsky to perjure herself when Ms Jones' lawyers put it to her on 7 January that she and the President had had an affair.

So when the story broke on Wednesday, Mr McCurry could truthfully say that before opening his Washington Post that morning he had known nothing about the Lewinsky business. This was in contrast to Mr Clinton, who claimed on TV that after- noon that all he knew of it was what he had read in the papers - a curious statement, suggesting that his famously retentive mind had mislaid the memory of the most damaging accusation Ms Jones' lawyers had flung at him only four days earlier.

But if Mr Clinton betrayed the subtlest hint of stage nerves, it was not because he suspected his questioner was aware of what had transpired behind closed doors during his weekend interrogation. It was because this time his accusers had tapes. They were in the possession of Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor whose initial brief to investigate the Whitewater affair had somehow expanded to include every misdemeanour the President might ever have committed. In them - unaware that she was being recorded - Ms Lewinsky spilled the beans about what she said had been a feverish affair, and about the President's efforts to get her to lie about it.

Had Mr Clinton's reputation not preceded him, had it come as a shock to imagine that he could possibly have had sex with a thrill-seeking 21- year-old woman, then armies of commentators might not have dwelt so insistently on the precise wording of his denials - on the fact that Mr Clinton said, "There is no sexual relationship", "There is no improper relationship". He did not say as he grammatically should have, since the questions were asked in the past tense, that there had been no such thing. To say "there is", besides, was clearly meaningless, since no one was suggesting that the affair was still going on.

Far from lifting, the clouds of suspicion darkened with Mr Clinton's denials. The former law professor, who when once asked if he had ever smoked marijuana replied, "I didn't inhale", had sought an escape clause in case evidence emerged proving that he had indeed had an affair with Ms Lewinsky.

Or so it seemed to almost everyone in Washington. On Capitol Hill they were already whispering the word impeachment. In the White House the mood was alternately frantic and subdued. Most tellingly, the President's supporters were not taking his denials at face value. Dee Dee Myers, a former White House spokeswoman, said that if Mr Clinton was lying the consequences would be "astronomical". George Stephanopoulos, the President's former chief political adviser, said that if the allegations were true they "could lead to impeachment proceedings". David Gergen, once the White House communications director, put the bravest face on things, declaring: "We are either facing the worst act of self-destruction by a president, or the worst smear of a president, in the 20th century."

The measure of the discredit into which the President had fallen, of the readiness of friend and foe alike to believe the worst, was that the chief agent of his predicament was a former White House secretary whom no one outside her circle had heard of. Linda Tripp, whose only obvious link with the women the President had allegedly seduced was a big hair- do, suddenly emerged as a far greater threat than Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers combined. It was she who had insinuated herself into a position of intimacy with Ms Lewinsky before starting to tape the telephone conversations in which the young woman revealed her secrets and her inner torture. Ms Tripp's motivation, it appears, was a combination of revenge and personal vindication. Last summer Robert Bennett, Mr Clinton's personal lawyer, had described her as a person "not to be believed" after she claimed she knew of another woman whom the President had groped and fondled in the White House. It was after that insult that she began making her secret tapes, one of which was obtained by Newsweek magazine.

In them Ms Lewinsky tells of sexual encounters with the President in a White House study, of midnight phone calls, of her progress from star- struck infatuation to confusion, tears and dejection - yet also of her determination to lie to protect the man she came to call "the creep" and "the big he".

"I will deny it so he will not get screwed in the case," she says at one point. "But I'm going to get screwed personally." Sticking with "the cover story is what I signed up for when I began the relationship". She adds, desperate at the thought that the President will find out she blabbed about the affair, "If I do that, I'm just going to f---ing kill myself."

On 12 January Ms Tripp gave the tapes to Mr Starr, who promptly persuaded her to take part in a sting operation. Ms Tripp, wired with a recording device, met Ms Lewinsky in a hotel in Arlington, Virginia. For four hours, according to one of many leaked reports, Ms Tripp taped her talking about the agony she had suffered since giving the sworn affidavit to Ms Jones' lawyers. "I have the utmost respect for the President, who always behaved appropriately in my presence," the affidavit said. "I have never had a sexual relationship with the President. He did not propose that we have a sexual relationship."

Mr Starr is convinced the affidavit is untrue, and that Ms Lewinsky was persuaded to make it by the President and his friend Vernon Jordan, a lawyer and Washington insider. Mr Starr also knows that Mr Jordan supplied Ms Lewinsky with the lawyer she retained at the time the affidavit was drafted, but whom she has now fired, and that he arranged for her to obtain a job interview with Revlon, the cosmetics company, on whose board of directors he happens to sit. On the day the scandal broke last week Revlon announced that, having planned to hire Ms Lewinsky, it had abruptly changed its mind.

Behind the scenes Mr Starr was in contact with Ms Lewinsky. Menacingly, he offered her a deal. Either you co-operate with my investigations and tell the truth, whereupon I shall grant you indemnity from the perjury charge you deserve, or you prepare to face the music in court.

By Wednesday night Mr Starr had subpoenaed the White House for all available evidence relating to Ms Lewinsky, including documents recording her visits and testimony from officials with whom she worked. Within 24 hours he had even obtained slips recording the receipt of courier packages Ms Lewinsky had sent the President. On Friday came the next bombshell, the most telling indication that Ms Lewinsky acknowledged lying in her affidavit. She asked for a deposition hearing scheduled for that morning with Ms Jones' lawyers to be postponed. Her new lawyer, an old friend of her family named William Ginsburg, began appearing on television, making it clear that he was busy trying to strike a deal on behalf of his client with Mr Starr. In one interview Mr Ginsburg said that he was engaged in deadly serious business, averting "the potential for imprisonment for a 24-year-old girl".

The White House was now the Haunted House. No one in the administration doubted that they were in the grip of a full-blown crisis. More and more the question was whether the President would hold out for a prolonged impeachment hearing or might resign, either way exposing himself to the crushing shame of enduring for the rest of his life the knowledge that he had heaped upon his wife and daughter, his friends, his party, his country, the most excruciating humiliation. The embarrassment became more unbearable when ABC News, quoting "a source with direct knowledge" of the case, reported that Ms Lewinsky had kept "as a souvenir" a navy- blue dress stained with the President's semen.

By yesterday even the President's most wishful supporters were abandoning hope that it might all be made up. They felt sadness and pain as the impression took shape that the President - a charismatic and otherwise supremely rational individual - was an unwell man possessed by a blind and overpowering compulsion to force himself on the opposite sex. His roguish exploits had ceased to be amusing. A butt of so many jokes for so long, suddenly to laugh at him seemed unkind. He was too vulnerable for that. Too pathetic. The light was going out of his eyes, and he was fading, like Nixon at the end, into a walking shadow of the colossus he once had been.