The Starr Report: The Aides - Loyal staff drawn into the Big Lie

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The Independent Online
AMONG THE scores of White House foot soldiers - ordinary folk who this weekend are struggling to overcome their disappointment, if not outright disgust, over the conduct of the man they serve - a few key aides closest to Bill Clinton have cause to be especially shaken.

They were lied to, in person, for sure. In Kenneth Starr's eyes, they were also complicit in a cover-up that may be about to bring the President down.

The roles each of these people played, unwittingly for the most part, will now take centre-stage on Capitol Hill as members of the House Judiciary Committee ponder whether the accusations against the President meet the standard for impeachment of "high crimes and misdemeanours".

If Mr Starr is to be believed, the President's conversations with these aides in the hours and days immediately after the Lewinsky scandal burst into the open in January offer the best proof that obstruction of justice has indeed taken place.

One member of this group, the President's personal secretary, Betty Currie, had far more than just conversations with Mr Clinton. In one of the more unexpected twists in the Starr report, it appears that Ms Currie was, at different stages, a knowing accomplice in the Lewinsky-Clinton romance, a pawn in his efforts to cover it up and then the target of pleadings from Mr Clinton to lie herself.

One of the the most poignant passages in the report relates the testimony of Erskine Bowles, the Chief of Staff, about the morning of 21 January, just after the scandal broke, when the President baldly told him and other aides that the allegations about Monica Lewinsky were false. This is how Mr Bowles described the moment to the grand jury: "He looked up at us and he said the same thing he said to the American people. He said, 'I want you to know I did not have sexual relationships with this woman Monica Lewinsky'."

Mr Bowles went on: "All I can tell you is: This guy who I've worked for looked me in the eye and said he did not have sexual relationships with her. And if I didn't believe him, I couldn't stay. So I believe him." Mr Bowles has since decided to leave the White House.

It is clear now that others in the Clinton circle had no choice but to make the same calculation. One by one, they all received versions of the President's denial in those late January days and all decided that if they were to stick by his side they had to take him at his word. Sidney Blumenthal, the former New Yorker journalist, accepted a version from the President that he was "threatened" by Lewinsky and had been the unwilling partner in a non-sexual friendship.

Then there was the very special predicament of Mike McCurry, the spokesman who was obliged to face reporters in the press room. He now knows he lied for the President, day after day, month after month.

The critical contention by Mr Starr that the President dissembled to his aides, because he knew they would be called to the grand jury and that that amounts to obstruction of justice, is dismissed by Mr Clinton's lawyers. In their rebuttal to the report, they argue: "Having announced to the whole country on live television that he was not having sexual relations ... it is simply absurd to believe that he was somehow attempting to corruptly influence the testimony of aides."

The portrait of Ms Currie is more tricky. According to her testimony, she at first helped the trysting couple. She would escort Ms Lewinsky to the Oval Office by round-about routes in the White House to avoid curious eyes. Sometimes she would page her for the President, using the the code- name Kay. When the danger of exposure grew, she became still more intimately entangled. Before Christmas, she went to Ms Lewinsky's apartment to retrieve the gifts the President had given her. Ms Currie took them to her home and stashed them under her bed.

Witness tampering charges brought by Mr Starr also centre on Ms Currie. As told by Mr Starr, Mr Clinton tried to prompt her testimony, suggesting that she had never been aware that he and Lewinsky had spent time alone and that he had "never touched" the young woman.

BETTY CURRIE

Always a calm, gracious and even maternal presence, a quite unexpected picture of the President's 59-year-old personal secretary emerges from the Starr report. The report shows she did everything she could to abet the affair - even staying at the office after hours just to admit Ms Lewinsky.

ERSKINE BOWLES

Millionaire businessman who took the job of White House Chief of Staff with some reluctance in Clinton's second term. One of the least overtly political figures in the White House, Mr Bowles is leaving Washington in November and returning to private life. He has never linked his departure with the Lewinsky affair.

MIKE McCURRY

As White House spokesman, Mr McCurry has achieved the impossible. For seven months, he conveyed the President's lies about Ms Lewinsky to journalists, but manages, even now, to command their respect and friendship. Few Clinton aides can have been more grievously let down.

SIDNEY BLUMENTHAL

A society-chatterer and brain-box, Mr Blumenthal came to Mr Clinton's side last year from a life as a pundit and political reporter. Claims Starr report is part of right-wing conspiracy, tantamount to political coup d'etat. Report says he is one of the aides Clinton lied to in full knowledge he would be called to testify.

VERNON JORDAN

Long-time golfing partner and Clinton confidant, Mr Jordan's first contribution to the Clinton White House was as chairman of his transition team after the 1992 election. Now practising in his law firm, Mr Jordan was asked by his old friend to help find a job for Ms Lewinsky last year.

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