History haunts besieged Clinton Character concerns from Flowers scandal rekindled, magnified

January 25, 1998|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It was a week of two anniversaries for Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, one welcome and one nightmarish.

The first one -- the good one -- arrived Tuesday, five years to the day after Bill Clinton and Al Gore were sworn into office. Their plan was to celebrate at the Corcoran Gallery, where the two men were to be lovingly introduced by their wives to an audience of Democratic supporters.

It didn't happen that way. Neither the Gores nor the first lady showed up. And while the president labored through his speech, his mind seemed elsewhere. A block away, presidential lawyers and damage control specialists huddled in the West Wing over new allegations of sexual misconduct by the president.

The White House -- and the nation -- were being rudely jerked back in time to the other Clinton anniversary, Super Bowl Sunday six years ago, when Clinton first confronted the intensely private matter of his sexual behavior. Today, as the nation awaits another Super Bowl -- and an imminent public appearance by Clinton to explain allegations of sexual impropriety -- questions about his character have again moved to center stage in the nation's political life.

Back in 1992, Clinton had gone on national television, his presidential candidacy hanging in the balance and his wife by his side, to address sensational charges that he had conducted a long extramarital affair with an Arkansas lounge singer named Gennifer Flowers. Appearing on CBS' "60 Minutes" after the Super Bowl, the Clintons submitted themselves to an interview about the candidate's credibility, integrity and faithfulness as a husband.

That night, Clinton salvaged his presidential campaign. But doubts about the completeness and truthfulness of his answers never fully evaporated.

Now they have been rekindled by a torrent of allegations more sordid and far more serious: that Clinton engaged in a sexual relationship -- in the White House -- with an unpaid intern in her early 20s named Monica Lewinsky, and that he directed efforts to have her lie under oath to cover it up.

The president has denied these allegations. But he has not addressed the accusations in detail. What is riding on the as-yet unanswered questions is nothing less than whether Clinton will be allowed to finish his term of office.

"I haven't had a day like Thursday since 1974," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, in a reference to Watergate, the scandal that ended Richard M. Nixon's presidency. "This is not like Watergate, which involved widespread corruption throughout the government. This is more about the possible moral lapses of one man that have spilled over into the legal area. Nevertheless, it can lead to the removal of a president. The charges are serious enough."

Eerie similarities

On Wednesday, when this scandal exploded into public view, those with an institutional memory about Clinton's past had an eerie sense of deja vu:

Both the Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky cases involved secret tape recordings, supposed phone calls to the women from a Clinton who apparently feared what they would say in public, affidavits facilitated by Clinton loyalists and signed by the women in which they initially denied the affair had taken place and, finally, help from Clinton or his friends in finding them jobs.

Still, the two cases are different in fundamental ways.

For one thing, Clinton is now president, not the governor of Arkansas, and the scrutiny is infinitely more intense.

"There is something different about the presidency to the American people, and something sacred about the White House," said George C. Edwards III, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University. "On the Nixon tapes, for instance, what really offended people -- even more than the obstruction of justice, which was an esoteric concept to many -- was all the 'expletive deleteds,' the vulgar language.

"The other thing was the lying," Edwards added. "There are certain things that presidents just aren't supposed to do that are OK for ordinary people. And this, if true, certainly falls into that category. It would also be indicative that Clinton has engaged in a pattern of sustained lying to the American people."

What's more, this time the allegations of infidelity -- and Clinton's denials -- are taking place not in the anything-goes world of partisan politics, but in a legal arena. That venue is the Paula Corbin Jones sexual harassment suit, in which Clinton has been questioned under oath and where fudging the truth can equal not smart politics but perjury.

"They had gotten very good at damage control," Hess said. "So good, they'd gotten cocky."

Jones' lawyers say they noted the same attitude. "They didn't, it seemed to me at the time, take it seriously enough," Gilbert K. Davis, a former member of Jones' legal team said in an interview. "That was probably because of their prior experience. They'd weathered Gennifer Flowers; he'd gotten elected."

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