PRESIDENTIAL CRISIS: Tripp told her not to clean the dress

Analysis of A Relationship

IT WAS a day, not of high drama and political tension, but of a bizarre post-modern mixture of dry-cleaning, telephones and high politics. Yesterday's entrancing kaleidoscope of images and words brought us the President as both commander-in-chief and chief suspect, and portrayed the affair as simultaneously high treason and low farce. But once more, it brought us Monica Lewinsky, the reluctant star of the proceedings, and this time in her own words.

To some extent it was a day of bathos. There was no new information in the video of Bill Clinton's testimony to Kenneth Starr's investigators. Similarly, the 2,800 pages of documents that came out yesterday added little to the burden of accusations against the President. These were the supporting evidence to the report from Mr Starr, the independent counsel; more will follow in the next few weeks, as the judiciary committee of the House of Representatives assesses each and decides what can be released without offending the national sense of decorum or damaging national security, two concepts that have rarely been put in the same sentence, let alone the same documents.

In the main, yesterday's documents were the gossip of daytime viewing, revelations of the lifestyles of the powerful and their consorts that were titillating but never devastating. Ms Lewinsky tells her story as anyone might an illicit office romance, a mixture of intimacy and concealment, passion and practicality. It was more "Bridget Jones" than All the President's Men. It will not, it has to be said, look good in the William Jefferson Presidential Library, though it could make a decent comic romp.

Here, for instance, was the definitive explanation of the reason why Ms Lewinsky never dry-cleaned the blue dress that carried a sample of the President's semen. She never cleaned her clothes until she was ready to wear them again, she had told the Starr inquiry, and in the footnotes to the report, she had added that she wasn't sure it was sperm, anyway. Perhaps it had been avocado dip, she speculated.

Yesterday's documents revealed why she never wore the dress again. She told her "friend" Linda Tripp about the dress, and Ms Tripp insisted it be kept as evidence.

"And then when Thanksgiving time came around and I told [Tripp] that I was going to wear it for Thanksgiving, she told me I looked fat in the dress, I shouldn't wear it," Ms Lewinsky testified.

"She brought me a jacket from her closet so as to try to persuade me not to wear the dress."

In Watergate, the key phrase was "follow the money"; in Zippergate, it seems as if it is "does my bum look big in this?"

"A lot of that will be uncomfortable. It will be inappropriate for younger children," one of the networks warned about the televised testimony. The same went for much of the new documentation, but more because it was embarrassing than because it was graphic.

Here, for instance, were the telephone messages left on Ms Lewinsky's answer-phone by the President. "I remember them all," said Ms Lewinsky, a rare statement in a case where everyone seems to have been forever forgetting everything once placed under questioning. "One time, it was, you know, `Sorry I missed you'. One time, it was just `hello'. And then one time he called really late at night when I was not at home and it was whispered kind of loudly, you know, `come on. It's me'. Something like that. It was always nice to hear his voice."

Telephones also played a role in the concealment of the relationship. In the same way that Bridget Jones obsesses about calling 1471 to find out who has been calling her, Ms Lewinsky and the President work out ways of avoiding the President's name from appearing on her internal telephone when he calls.

Many American telephones have a system that indicates the caller's name; in this case, it would have been Potus - President of the United States.

"My caller ID at work; it would - when the President called from the Oval Office, it would say Potus and when he'd call from the residence, it was an asterisk. And I told him that," she says.

"Then one time he called from the residence ... on a line that had a phone number attached to it and so when he called, he said, `oh, did it ring up, you know, phone number? It didn't say my name, did it?'"

Ms Lewinsky also offered proof of the undying respect of all Americans for the status of the White House and its inner sanctum, the Oval Office. Her sexual contacts with the President all took place outside, partly because they could not be seen, partly because of other, less practical reasons. "I know this may sound silly, but it wouldn't be appropriate. You know," she said.

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