FOURTEEN DAYS THAT... SHOOK THE PRESIDENT

Sex, lies and the video testimony: embassy bombs and missile strikes. In two short weeks Bill Clinton has been to hell - and back
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE LADIES and gentlemen of the press who had accompanied Bill Clinton to Martha's Vineyard had drawn the short straw. It was true that they were in a pleasant resort town, with the President, but the action on Thursday, 20 August was all in Washington. Monica Lewinsky was testifying to the grand jury for the second time, and she was not happy: the President had made it clear that she was just a function, not even a partner, and her testimony was bound to make more waves than a man on holiday with his family.

As they lounged around the press tent, they were playing a video of Wag the Dog, the droll, one-joke film about the concealment of a White House scandal by the President's media and show business friends, who concoct a war in Albania from a few good songs and a decent sound stage in Burbank. They were probably telling the stories that journalists like to tell - always about the logistics of a story, never about the substance - and feeling that lazy melancholy that comes from being where the story isn't. Within minutes, they were propelled into a narrative that compressed continents and dark conspiracies into two short weeks.

It had started when the President was awoken at 5.30 on Friday, 7 August by Sandy Berger, his National Security Adviser. He cannot have slept well: the day before, Ms Lewinsky had testified for the first time, and a house of cards had toppled. She had told Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel, and the grand jury that yes, she had a sexual relationship with Bill Clinton: on a number of occasions she had oral sex with him. All Washington and most of the country already believed that, of course, but it meant that - unless one applied standards of semantic analysis that would pass muster only in an Oxford logic class - he had lied.

What Mr Berger told the President was that earlier that day, bombs had exploded at the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, destroying the latter and badly damaging the former. By 9am, he was in his daily security briefing, studying satellite photographs, maps and diagrams.

The President had planned to leave Washington the following week, to do what he did best: campaign. By Monday morning, it was already decided that the trip would be cut short. He would go to Louisville, Chicago and California, then head home. Hillary Rodham Clinton would carry on to Wisconsin without him.

WEDNESDAY was a day of intense planning, an interlude in the great drama that was already under way. A meeting of the President's advisers was convened, initially in the Situation Room, with all the panoply of the national security state. Then in the Oval Office, there was a more intimate gathering of the key players: George Tenet, the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), William Cohen, the Secretary of Defence, General Henry Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mr Berger and Tom Pickering from the State Department, replacing Madeleine Albright. They laid out the evidence that had been accumulated. Since the earliest hours, the main suspect had been Osama bin Laden, the millionaire Saudi who was alleged to have financed, organised and co-ordinated a dozen operations in the past few years. There had been threats, a pre-empted attack in Albania, reports of operations under consideration. They were sure enough to kick off the planning.

While one tightly knit group was sketching one operation, another was organising the President's more direct concern: his legal affairs. The first was drawn from those with the highest security classifications and ranks; the second, those with attorney-client privilege. David Kendall and Nicole Seligman, his own lawyers, David Ruff, the White House counsel, and Mickey Kantor, former official and lawyer, were the .

only people who could discuss the issue without fear that they, too would be subpoenaed. Together, they were trying to plan what the President could say during his testimony on 17 August, just days away. It was still uncertain on Wednesday, but the President seems to have been moving rapidly towards a scenario on this, too.

That night, his Arkansas friend and Hollywood producer Harry Thomason came to visit. They stayed up late, and according to thinly concealed leaks in the next two days, the President rehearsed a plan: that he would, in substance, confess to a sexual relationship; but that he would draw the line at certain points, refusing to discuss the exact physical details.

Thursday was always going to be a grim day. In a cavernous hangar at Andrews Air Force Base, the bodies of the Americans killed in Kenya were arriving. With his wife by his side, tears in his eyes, the President oversaw their return. In the evening, he and Hillary sat up late into the night discussing what he would say.

The next day, the first carefully considered leaks were in the New York Times: President Clinton, they said, would tell of his relationship when he testified, but would draw a veil over some subjects, and would probably address the nation afterwards. Things were starting to solidify, but final policy choices still had to be made, and options had to be closed off before the weekend.

THE PRESIDENT met the security team again, and things had moved on a lot. The evidence had mounted against Osama bin Laden, and there were indications that another operation was on the cards, he was told. The DCI had new information, new reasons to act; and the Pentagon had firmed up plans laid months earlier by Central Command, down in Tampa, Florida. The USS Abraham Lincoln and its carrier battle group would move into position in the Arabian and Red seas. The logistics were coming into place. In the afternoon, the President was treated to an impromptu early birthday party with a cake. Things were as casual as they can be with the Marine Corps Band present. An air of surreal normality was being preserved, at all costs.

By the weekend that was changing. Mr Kendall had been protesting that he had not enough time with his client: he knew that the President had other concerns, though not the subject or the seriousness. On Saturday, he finally got a full run-through with the President, interrupted only by a presidential jog. Elsewhere in the White House, Paul Begala, a key aide, was preparing the first draft of the speech that would follow Monday's testimony. On Sunday, Bob Woodward had sanctified the "Clinton to tell nearly all" story in the Washington Post.

Out in the Middle East, the Abraham Lincoln and her guided missile cruisers were shifting out past the Straits of Hormuz, into open seas; in Albania, 200 Marines and 10 Navy Seals had arrived to shepherd American residents home.

The week opened with special deliveries of the news magazines, which had their only shot on Monday mornings. They were scathing about his prospects; and several said there was little indication of early action on the African bombs, either. The President was too weak, said right-winger Charles Krauthammer in Time. A few pages earlier, a reporter confidently predicted that Mr bin Laden was safe as houses in his Afghan retreat.

Mr Clinton had finished his draft of the "Mea Sorta Culpa" speech, though by this time, others were working on a very different address for later in the week; he had spent time with Mr Berger on the details of the forthcoming missile strike, agreed to a list of media events for the month, and was ready to rock. At 12.59, one minute early, he was in the White House Map Room, chosen for the testimony because of its lack of presidential insignia, named aftter the vast map of allied movements that Roosevelt had kept there; it is frozen in April 1945, as the Allied troops close in on Berlin.

He did not finally emerge until 6.25, angry, uncomposed and combative. It had not gone well. The Starr team had repeatedly probed differences between his and Lewinsky's testimonies, and he had repeatedly refused to answer. Questions of legal privilege had been raised, and during a break there had also been a disagreement with advisers over the television address he was to make after giving testimony. That now resurfaced: while he and his wife wanted to tack the explanation on to a sharp attack on the prosecutor, his advisers counselled caution. The Clintons argued that polls showed people did not like Starr; the others said it would just make matters worse. It was time, said the President, to get back to more important matters - like national security. The Clintons won and he went before the cameras to make the points he wanted.

BY 5.30 the next morning, Kenneth Starr was in his office. The newspaper headlines cannot have displeased him. Clinton had given, by any measure, a rotten performance, and the papers had roasted him, from "Liar! Liar" in the New York Daily News to more elegant versions of the same in the posh papers. He had been combative, unrepentant and sharp. The polls showed that people did not trust him, even more than they did not trust him the week before; but they still supported him. It could only be a matter of time, official Washington was deciding, before the proletariat caught up with the Commentariat.

Later on Tuesday, the President was shown departing for his holiday in Martha's Vineyard. Eyes cast down towards his shoes, he held Chelsea's hand, and she held Hillary's hand, but never the twain should meet, it seemed. The only one who seemed to be having fun was the dog.

The 52nd birthday of William Jefferson Clinton on Wednesday cannot have been a barrel of laughs, it is fair to say. In the evening, the family went to a party held by his old friend Vernon Jordan, the Washington lawyer, and they left at 11.30. During the day, various Congressional leaders had been called to inform them that military action was imminent - all had stayed sedulously polite about the President, despite his travails. Selected world leaders had also been informed - including Tony Blair and Helmut Kohl. The President stayed on the phone until 3am, talking things over with Sandy Berger and others. The President had until 6am to call things off, he was told. He didn't.

And so it was that as Monica Lewinsky drove to the Prettyman Court House on Thursday, some 76 Tomahawk cruise missiles roared from their launchers and headed off into the dark, six to the south, 70 to the north; and that as she entered the court room, the night skies of south-eastern Afghanistan and Khartoum still burned bright, and dozens of people lay dying, or in agony; and that the press who came to Martha's Vineyard got their story.

That afternoon Mr Clinton flew back to Washington, from the holiday that never was, for his second crack in a week at a national address. Three days before, he had defended himself over an "inappropriate sexual relationship", and charges of perjury; now he was defending the nation. Three days before, under personal attack, he had been defensive, abrupt and ungainly. Now, he was smooth, polished and calm. Even the walk had changed, as he snapped off a military salute to the guards. Three days before, he had looked as if he was losing it all. By the end of the week, nobody was quite so sure.

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