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Jewish World Review / August 5, 1998 / 13 Menachem-Av, 5758

Roger Simon

Roger Simon Tell the truth?

WASHINGTON -- The talking heads have been yammering in unison: If President Clinton tells the truth, it will set him free.

Congress will forgive him, they say, the American people will forgive him, and history will forgive him. If only he tells the truth.

The interesting thing about this charming theory, however, is that none of the people advocating it know the truth.

And the people who do know the truth don't seem to be advocating it. At least not publicly.

Clinton has told the American people that he did not have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, but he has also said that there are many questions to be answered and that he wants to answer them -- someday.

So I think it is safe to say that we do not know the whole truth yet.

And it is unlikely that Clinton has told many people the whole truth.

Perhaps Clinton has told his wife, since she cannot be compelled to testify against him.

And perhaps he has told his lawyer. But a lawyer cannot knowingly let a defendant lie under oath, which is why many lawyers never ask the question: Did you do what you are accused of?

Clinton's staff definitely does not know the whole truth. And Clinton's lawyers intend to keep it that way. Which had created a certain conflict.

In the White House these days, there are two sides struggling for the heart and mind of Bill Clinton, each figuratively perched on his shoulder and whispering in his ear.

On one side are the president's media and political advisers, and their position to the president is simple: There is no such thing as dead air on television or blank pages in a newspaper. So either the president can say something -- anything -- about Monica to fill that time and space, or he can have Wolf Blitzer talking about stains and dresses.

On the other side are the president's high-priced, high-powered, highly skilled lawyers, whose advice to the president is somewhat simpler: Shut up!

When the story first broke on Jan. 21, the media team said the president had to get out there and deny the story, protect his image and build the poll numbers.

"They (the reporters) thought they were going to run this guy out of office, and they got excited, thrilled by it," White House spokesman Mike McCurry said.

The president had to keep in the public eye, McCurry's team argued, he could not be seen like Richard Nixon, hiding in his bunker and talking to the pictures on the walls.

The legal team was aghast. This wasn't about keeping the president in the public eye -- it was about keeping him in office. Silence was not only golden; it was mandatory.

The president listened, and Hillary listened. She would coordinate the damage control. And in the beginning, the situation looked so grave -- the media was already talking about Clinton's resignation -- that McCurry's team won.

Hillary summoned Harry Thomason, the TV producer and longtime friend of Bill, to the White House to stage-manage Clinton's denial.

Thomason, who had also stage-managed Clinton's denial of the affair with Gennifer Flowers in New Hampshire in 1992, knew two things: It was going to be on television, and it was going to be wonderful.

"TV shows and movies and political events are all the same," Thomason had once said. "They are all designed to move people."

Thomason selected a single word to sum up what the president's emotion should be during his denial: indignation.

And on Jan. 26, in the Roosevelt Room with Hillary at his side, Clinton was, well, indignant. He wagged his finger at the cameras, he thumped the lectern, and he said with a tinge of anger in his voice: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

The White House polled that day, and the numbers were excellent. But McCurry's side would not win another battle for a long, long time.

As Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr widened his probe to include the Lewinsky matter, the stakes became very high.

The White House counsel, Charles F.C. Ruff, was a man of few words, and he was teamed with Clinton's private attorney, David Kendall, who was a man of even fewer. There was nothing to be gained in their view by the president or anyone else talking about this Lewinsky matter.

So each morning, McCurry and others would meet with Ruff in his crowded West Wing office, and each day, they learned the same thing.

"They don't tell us anything," one staffer grumped.

And so, McCurry was forced to admit publicly that even though he was the president's spokesman, he had nothing to speak about when it came to Lewinsky.

"I am out of the loop," he told reporters. "I'm not even sure in this matter there is a loop. I think that if there was going to be that loop, I would be in it. But I think ultimately people want to hear from the president on this, and the president's not in a position to do that now, so, you know, we play 'bust the pinata' up here every day."

The lawyers were equally frustrated. It might appear to outsiders that the president enjoyed special privileges, but they knew he had one big disadvantage: It is a Justice Department guideline not to subpoena the target of a criminal investigation because the target would quite sensibly invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

But Clinton was subpoenaed by Starr on June 17, and his political team argued that taking the Fifth would be political suicide in that it would be seen as a tacit admission of guilt.

Clinton decided he could fight the subpoena, which reportedly his lawyers wanted to do, because that would raise unpleasant memories of Richard Nixon and Watergate.

As rumors of the subpoena leaked out, McCurry went to the lawyers and asked what was up.

"They told me they could not tell me anything," McCurry said.

Which severely limited his ability to give advice. Until, that is, the media frenzy began building to such a degree that when the president's legal team finally worked out a "voluntary" way for Clinton to answer Starr's questions from the White House on Aug. 17, McCurry begged Kendall to go on camera and announce it.

Kendall did not see why he should.

McCurry did not even bother arguing that it would make good TV. "Instead, I made an efficiency argument," he said. "I said that by making a TV appearance, he could head off 1,000 phone calls."

So, Kendall went outside the West Wing and reluctantly read a few words off a piece of paper.

"Now, we can have a game plan and a road map," McCurry said. "We can be a little more forthcoming."

Which resulted last Friday in the press corps being put very close to Clinton when he made a little statement in the Rose Garden. The press was allowed to get close to show Clinton was not afraid of them (and a separate camera platform was set up to one side so the American people could see how close the press was and how unafraid the president was).

After giving a dry presentation about the American economy, Clinton leaned forward, gripped the edges of the lectern and said: "No one wants to get this matter behind us more than I do, except maybe all the rest of the American people. I am looking forward to the opportunity in the next few days of testifying. I will do so completely and truthfully. I am anxious to do it. But I hope you can understand why, in the interim, I can and should have no further comment on these matters. Thank you very much."

Which was pure Clinton: Give the media team a little, and give the legal team a little. Split the baby. Keep everybody happy.

McCurry stood under the tree waiting solemnly until the president had finished, and then, McCurry allowed a small smile to play across his lips. He knew the president would dominate the news that evening and the next day.

The president had not really said anything, but he had said it very well. He had filled the air. He had filled the space.

And sometimes, McCurry knew, that was enough.


7/30/98: All ya need is luv...and to deny, deny, deny
7/28/98: 'Man-of-da-people,' huh?
7/23/98: Can frequent-flyer miles alone earn Bubba a Nobel Prize?
7/21/98: San Francisco: not only 'gay,' but happy
7/17/98: Why Bubba claims Y2K is US' biggest problem
7/14/98: Close Amtrak --- PLEASE!
7/9/98: Flag burning is for nuts!
7/7/98: Forget about his legal defense fund, buy Bubba shirts!
7/1/98: Wall-nuts
6/26/98: Perks and the press
6/23/98: There's a good reason Bubba wants gun-control...
6/19/98: Why Clinton can get away with going to Tiananmen Square
6/16/98: Maybe Big Brother ain't so bad after all
6/11/98: He claimed responsibility for Rwanda, so why isn't Bubba stopping Serbian genocide?
6/9/98: The Internet president?
6/4/98: You can call me ‘slick;' and you can call me ‘sick;' but never call me ‘Dick' .... as in Nixon, that is
6/2/98: Being a 'talkin'-head' is hard work
5/29/98 Pay the pol, pick the policy
5/27/98 A 'loo' in London
5/21/98Buba is back from Europe ... but what did he accomplish?
5/18/98Roses for Buba
5/12/98: Just who is "Mr. Republican" these days?"
5/7/98:"Why Clinton keeeps "going and going and going""
5/1/98:"Bubba v. Tabacka"
4/29/98:"You may ask, but should they tell?"
4/24/98:"McCurry and the kids from the ‘hood "
4/23/98: "NOW" should change its name to "THEN"
4/20/98: Freedom to be a jerk?
4/14/98: Bill is Hef's kinda guy
4/7/98: South African memories --- and a paradise not yet found
3/24/98: Bill's 12-day safari
3/20/98: Peace for Ireland?
3/18/98: Flat tire? Spare me
3/13/98: Latrell Sprewell's genius
3/10/98: On truth and reality
3/5/98: No, I'm not harrassing Hillary
3/3/98: The Unforgettable Henny Youngman
2/26/98: Grow up, boys!
2/24/98: Go get 'em, Bill!
2/19/98: My 15 minutes
2/17/98: The manic-depressive presidency
2/12/98: Drip, Drip, Drip
2/10/98: Clinton tunes out the networks
2/5/98: The flight of the Beast: America's love-hate relationship with scandal
2/3/98: Speaking Clintonese
1/29/98: What the president has going for him
1/27/98: Judgment call: how Americans view President Clinton
1/22/98: Bimbo eruptions past and present
1/20/98: Feeding the beast: Paula Jones gets the full O.J.
1/15/98: Let's get it over with: it's time to deal with Saddam, already
1/13/98: Sonny Bono is dead, let the good times roll
1/8/98: Carribbean Cheesecake: First couple has cake, eats cake
1/6/98: PO'ed: a suspected druggie jumps through the employment hoops
1/1/98: Cures for that holiday hangover
12/30/97: Buy stuff now
12/25/97: Peace to all squirrelkind
12/23/97: Home for the Holidays: Where John Hinckley, never convicted, will not be
12/18/97: Bill's B-list Bacchanalia: Press and politicos get cozy, to a point
12/16/97: All dressed up... (White House flack Mike McCurry speculates on his next career)

©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.