Why Clinton may not be the loser in the Lewinsky affair

As the President's testimony nears, the US mood is turning against prosecutor Starr, reports Andrew Marshall
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IF THE hands of time could be turned back, then it would be better if none of this had happened. That is overwhelmingly the view of the American people about the investigation into the relationship between Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton, the affair that has brought semen stains and presidential infidelity to the top of every news broadcast for the past week.

More than 60 per cent wish that the investigation had never begun, according to a poll by CBS. If it cannot be undone, then let it be ended, has been the chorus from pundits and the press. Virtually every self-appointed expert seems to believe that Clinton should come clean, admit to adultery and be done with it.

Yet there is no option available that would end the saga quickly or cleanly. It is virtually impossible for the legal juggernaut that is hurtling through Washington to be stopped, whatever the results of Ms Lewinsky's testimony last week and the President's a week tomorrow. The relentless pursuit of Mr Clinton will continue, even though the chances of a concrete outcome are diminishing by the day. That almost certainly means that the affair will become even more vicious as the time of Mr Clinton's appearance approaches.

Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who is investigating the President, is bound by his legal mandate to continue with the investigation whether or not the President admits to sex with Ms Lewinsky. Once he reports, a document several hundred pages thick will then drop on to the desks of Congressmen, who will be asked to discuss it thoroughly and hold their own hearings. That will not happen before the mid-term elections in November, and it will probably not happen this year, even if Mr Starr reports immediately after the Clinton testimony. Besides, there is a stack of legal issues still to be decided about aspects of the Starr investigation, some of which will drag through courts for months.

Nor will Mr Clinton's testimony resolve anything as far as the inquiry is concerned. If he continues to deny a sexual relationship with Ms Lewinsky, then everything is still up for grabs. She has admitted lying on other occasions; she may have told Mr Starr that she did have a relationship with the President, but this does not close off the question as long as Mr Clinton remains adamant in his denials.

Nor would a Clinton confession end the torment. The mea culpa, a strategy successfully adopted by everyone from television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart to former Clinton adviser Dick Morris, has been promoted by many who have (in the past) been close to the President. Mr Morris, David Gergen, Dee Dee Myers, Leon Panetta and George Stephanopolous, all former White House aides, suggested it last week, as did Republican Congressman Orrin Hatch. But even if the President acknowledges sex, that would not stop the process: after all, it would confirm that he had been lying when he earlier denied it. And the key point which Mr Starr is seeking to prove is about lying, and about White House attempts to obstruct the course of justice. In any case, the ritual appeals to come clean are not entirely convincing, and have a ring of the police interview room about them ("Tell us all about it, son, and it'll all be over.")

Does it matter whether the affair unwinds at a leisurely pace over the next year? In a week when the President was also expected to discuss, and deal with, bombs at the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, a rising tide of violence in Kosovo and possible Nato engagement, a 300- point plunge in the stock market and a new confrontation with Iraq, the answer should be obvious. White House time is heavily absorbed in preparations for the President's testimony and ritualised legal sparring with Mr Starr. There cannot be much left for the matters of state.

Yet even as the wheels of justice grind smaller and smaller, the chances of Mr Starr making his case seem more and more remote. The key allegation - that Ms Lewinsky was persuaded to lie about the affair to a civil court - will be desperately hard to prove without her testimony. And she told the grand jury, according to reports in the US press, that neither the President nor his aides asked her to lie. She had, though, discussed cover stories to hide the affair from others in the White House - not the same thing at all.

The famous tapes recorded by Linda Tripp, Ms Lewinsky's "friend", do not seem to provide conclusive proof that anyone connived at perjury. A set of "talking points" for Mrs Tripp - allegedly intended to assist in misleading the civil court - were apparently drawn up by Ms Lewinsky herself, and not by White House advisers. The "talking points" were long considered the smoking gun. Now there is no smoke - and therefore quite possibly no fire.

Yet Mr Starr will trudge on down his lonely path. He is to some extent a victim of the legal necessities of his job. He must continue, and he must accumulate evidence as best he can, whatever the emotions and opinions of the American people. The politicians - even the Republicans - are wary of tackling Mr Clinton head-on in impeachment proceedings, but Mr Starr has little leeway in his investigation. He is not a politician, and cannot change his task. He comes across very unsympathetically, as a grim-faced man with little humanity who is acting with ideological zeal, even though much of it is simply his job.

It is this which the White House will target with increasing ferocity as the day of the Clinton testimony approaches. They had their first palpable hit on Friday evening when a federal judge ruled that there was evidence that Mr Starr's team had leaked information on the inquiry to the press. The judge may hold a hearing to decide whether Mr Starr's staff did indeed leak, and should be punished.

The White House has - with justification - been alarmed by the way that key evidence seeps through to the public eye, and now they smell some blood in the water. Members of the media, largely tired of being stonewalled by the White House press office, are bored with Ms Lewinsky herself and have run themselves into the ground speculating about the demise of the President. They may now be happy to taste fresh meat. They could find that in Mr Starr.

Bill & Monica, Section 2 front