Terror in the White House as Bill's friends turn against him

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The Independent Online
HAD THEY heard the latest in Dublin yesterday about President Bill Clinton and his sexcapades with Monica Lewinsky? One would hope not. It seems that the naughty pair had one of their Oval Office "encounters" on Easter Day two years ago - just hours after the devout Mr Clinton had attended church with his family.

It is only a rumour, of course, just like last week's story about Ms Lewinsky and what she did for Mr Clinton with a cigar. And not for the first time, it comes courtesy of the Internet gossip king, Matt Drudge. Details of the Easter tryst were provided by Ms Lewinsky in testimony to the grand jury, he claims.

But whether you take Mr Drudge seriously hardly matters. The truth about the President's predicament has now become painfully obvious. He is losing all control of the scandal that has been blossoming around him ever since his liaisons with Ms Lewinsky first surfaced last January. The dam holding back the waters of disgrace has not yet been breached, but with every day that passes the chances of it holding grow slimmer.

A foreign trip might have seemed a good idea and to Ireland especially, where the architects of peace are right to give credit and thanks to Mr Clinton for the part he has played. But what was the soundbite crossing the Atlantic to the United States yesterday? One word long, it was: "Sorry". What his public saw was their President not basking in diplomatic glory, but mumbling apologies.

"I've already said I made a bad mistake," Mr Clinton sputtered, "and it was indefensible and I'm sorry." The remark provoked excitement, of course, because the President, while he believes he has apologised to the American people in full, had actually never said "sorry" before.

The pathetic scene was forced upon the President by one of his oldest friends and political allies, Senator Joseph Lieberman. The previous evening, Mr Lieberman had taken to the floor of the chamber and launched a most excoriating attack on the President and his abandonment of morals.

True, he stopped short of calling for impeachment. But that offers little comfort to the White House. Referring to Mr Clinton's 17 August admission on television of his "inappropriate" contacts with Ms Lewinsky, Mr Lieberman fumed: "Such behaviour is not only inappropriate, it is immoral and it is harmful," The "disgraceful" conduct that Mr Clinton had admitted to was deserving, he went on, of "public rebuke and accountability".

The senator delivered his speech even after coming under intense pressure both from fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill and from the White House chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, to bite his tongue. That he ignored the advice may turn out to be a turning point in the whole scandal.

It was so important because he was a friend of the President and because, as the only observant Orthodox Jew on the Senate floor, he commands wide respect among his peers. But the most urgent worry for the White House is that the remarks will start a domino effect. Both Patrick Moynihan and Bob Kerrey, two other leading Democrat senators, immediately followed Mr Lieberman's lead to criticise the President in the Senate.

And some Democrats now feel impelled to detach themselves from Mr Clinton because of the impending congressional elections in November. Take Marcy Kaptur, for instance, a Democrat representative from Ohio. On Wednesday, she demanded "public restitution" from the President, "beyond verbal expressions of regret". She told her local newspaper: "If he resigned tomorrow, it wouldn't be enough in my judgement."

The sudden evaporation of support could not be timed worse for Mr Clinton. Before the end of this month, the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, is to submit the final report of his investigation into the President to the judiciary committee of the House of Representatives.

Whatever the report contains, it seems that the President can no longer count on Democrats to blunt its impact in Congress or obstruct the judiciary committee's response to it.

A resolution already drafted by the rules committee chairman, Representative Gerald Solomon, calls on Mr Starr to attach an executive summary to his report, which would be available to all the members on Capitol Hill and indeed to the US public. "Every member and the press are entitled to see that," Mr Solomon said this week.

Therein lies the worst of the White House's terrors. What, exactly, does Mr Starr have against the President? If it is merely the fact that he and Ms Lewinsky shared carnal pleasures, that could probably be contained. But what if Mr Starr comes forward with criminal allegations - of perjury or attempting to obstruct justice?

When the report finally appears, the White House will have to engage in a defensive battle of an intensity it has never before experienced. A war room has already been established that is reminiscent of the other campaigns that earned the President his "comeback kid" moniker. But this time around, it is unclear if the White House has the necessary puff.

Morale on Pennsylvania Avenue is rock-bottom, as Mr Clinton's lieutenants struggle with the intense personal disappointment after his 17 August admission. More than that, some of his key officers are preparing to leave his side. Mike McCurry, his embattled spokesman, is to leave next month. And Mr Bowles is also preparing to depart. Moreover, long-running strategy battles between the President's lawyers and political advisers are still unresolved.

A minority in the White House are counselling humility. Winning the argument so far are those who insist the only option is an aggressive counter-offensive on Mr Starr and his findings.

The case put by the majority is that crawling to Congress for forgiveness would portray the President as weak. But it is questionable whether he has any authority left. With every new attempt he makes to seek forgiveness for his affair with Ms Lewinsky, the more he is undermined.

If he is really unlucky new troubles will emerge to pile upon the old. There was news from the Attorney General, Janet Reno, this week that almost went unnoticed. She said she was to revisit an earlier decision not to investigate claims that President Clinton illegally used so-called "soft money", given to promote the electoral chances of his party rather than himself, for his own personal campaign for president in 1996. Indeed, fund-raising, not sex, is regarded by many anti-Clintonites as the more potent bomb to blow him out of the White House.

Then there is the spectre of an economy that is threatening to cease being the life-raft that has kept the President's approval rates so handsomely afloat for such a long time. It was the "economy, stupid" that got Mr Clinton into the White House in 1992. An economy that is suddenly sent south by international troubles and a sagging stock market could help speed him out of it.

And the closer the Easter sex allegations are inspected, the more dreadful they appear. That came just four days after Ron Brown, the former commerce secretary and chairman of the 1992 election campaign, died in an air crash in Croatia.

The television cameras were focused intently on the President that day as he entered the church in a time of what everyone assumed was all- consuming mourning.

According to Mr Drudge, after the service he had lunch with his wife and daughter at a restaurant in Georgetown. His appetite for food thus filled, the President then allegedly departed to satisfy his other appetites during the afternoon.