This Week

Issue: "Rebel with a cause," Jan. 30, 1998

Quiet thaw?

Chinese military leaders allowed an American delegation led by defense secretary William Cohen to visit a sensitive military post that monitors air and missile defenses for 200 miles around Beijing. It was the first time China had allowed any foreigner into the command center and was a visible sign of the quiet thaw in U.S.-China military relations over the last year. Mr. Cohen concluded his visit by meeting with China's president, Jiang Zemin, and signing a protocol for contacts between American and Chinese naval and air forces.

Tense and tension

Secret tapes. The Watergate complex. A shifty-eyed president mumbling uncomfortably before the TV cameras. Some say history repeats itself, but this was downright eerie. President Nixon's fall was a quarter-century ago. This time around, it was Bill Clinton, perhaps looking down a similarly dark tunnel. The story broke last Wednesday morning with such sudden ferocity that even the heads of the president's spinmeisters seemed to be spinning: Mr. Clinton had reportedly carried on an affair with young White House intern Monica Lewinsky, then urged her to lie when confronted by investigators. Most damaging of all, there were hours of tapes detailing the purported affair, so the usual denials might not work this time around. Not that the White House didn't try. Early in the day, spokesman Mike McCurry read a brief statement insisting that "the president is outraged" by the charges. But reporters in the standing-room-only crowd registered levels of skepticism unseen since the Reagan years, pressing Mr. McCurry again and again on his carefully worded statement: Why did he repeatedly stress there had been no improper sexual relationship? Why wouldn't he deny coaching Ms. Lewinsky on her testimony? Even Bob Bennett, the president's normally blustery lawyer, seemed shaken. After admitting that he didn't know the content of the tapes, "I smell a rat" was the most moral outrage he could muster. The alleged facts in the case came to light slowly, and each new revelation rocked the Washington press corps as the day wore on. Ms. Lewinsky had started working in the White House in 1995, at age 21. She claimed the affair began soon after that and lasted for a year and a half. Around the time of the 1996 elections, Clinton handlers moved her to the Pentagon, where she met Linda Tripp, to whom she confided her heartbreak and confusion. It was her new friend who eventually alerted independent counsel Kenneth Starr to the situation and agreed to wear a microphone to several meetings. Proof that he'd had a fling with a young woman not much older than his daughter Chelsea would prove politically devastating to Mr. Clinton, but more serious still were the legal implications. Ms. Lewinsky had already provided a sworn affidavit stating that she and the president had never been intimate. But, she told her friend in one taped conversation, that denial came at the president's insistence. He allegedly put her in touch with Vernon Jordan, the Washington superlawyer and Clinton confidant, who told her that even if her lie should be discovered, perjurers were never prosecuted in civil trials. About the time Ms. Lewinsky learned she would be deposed in the Paula Jones case, Mr. Jordan reportedly began trying to get her out of Washington. At the time, she was earning about $32,000 at her Pentagon job and living in the swank Watergate complex. She eventually was offered a position in Revlon's public relations department in New York. Mr. Jordan, who sits on the board of the cosmetics giant, refused to talk to reporters. By midday everyone appeared to be hedging. Ms. Lewinsky's attorney refused to stand by his client's earlier affidavit. Instead, he allowed that "The president of the United States's judgment is seriously in question, and he has obviously taken, if it's true, a misogynistic attitude towards women in general, and certainly young women." Later in the afternoon, President Clinton himself talked to Jim Lehrer of the PBS News Hour show. With pronounced bags under his eyes and a bulging jaw muscle, Mr. Clinton looked unusually tense. But it was the tenses of his verbs that really attracted attention. "There is no improper relationship," the president insisted repeatedly, carefully avoiding use of the past tense. The possibility that the president was hedging on his earlier, sworn testimony about the affair led Rep. Henry Hyde (R.-Ill.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to raise the issue of impeachment, though he cautioned that the facts were still too sketchy to draw any conclusions. But conclusions may come relatively quickly. With Ms. Lewinsky scheduled to be deposed on Friday, (Thursday night, a U.S. District Court judge postponed any deposition indefinitely) her lawyer late Wednesday night was calling for Mr. Starr to "protect" his client, who had been "ravaged" by the day's events. To most observers, that was an invitation for some sort of plea agreement. If Ms. Lewinsky does cooperate with prosecutors, and if sufficient corroborating evidence is found, the ultimate conclusion could well be reached: an early conclusion to the Clinton presidency. Day two of the unfolding scandal opened with more morning news-show speculation along those lines. Later in the morning, independent counsel Kenneth Starr made his first appearance since the big story broke. "We are moving as promptly as we can," Mr. Starr said, without much elaboration. The independent counsel dismissed a shouted question-"What's this got to do with Whitewater?"-by noting that his jurisdiction had been properly expanded. Mr. Starr also went out of his way to emphasize the "presumption of innocence" that exists in the American justice system.

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