Leak of Clinton deposition shows Washington's no place for secrets

March 09, 1998|By Jack Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- There are no secrets here, only stuff that hasn't come out yet. So it should be no surprise that the Washington Post has suddenly provided its readers with a detailed account of President Clinton's Jan. 17 testimony about Monica Lewinsky.

There are no bombshells in the report -- except, of course, the fact that it is based on a sealed deposition Mr. Clinton gave in the Paula Corbin Jones civil suit charging him with sexual misconduct.

Where scandals abound

The fact that the deposition was leaked was further confirmation of a long-established truth about scandals in Washington -- that ultimately every piece of evidence is brought to light and examined in public.

That well-established pattern does not mean, however, that we always get to the bottom of every controversy here. Despite the best efforts of a special prosecutor and a blue-ribbon congressional committee, the country never really learned precisely what role was played in the Iran-contra affair by either Ronald Reagan or George Bush. But what those investigations did accomplish was to put enough information on the record so that reasonable inferences could be drawn.

The same thing seems to be happening with the Lewinsky case. The Post account of the deposition, unchallenged on its accuracy by the White House, generally supports what the president has said all along on the two crucial questions. In his testimony, the story goes, he denied ever having a sexual relationship with the young intern, and he denied that he tried to persuade her to give false testimony to back him up. On the other hand, the account of the deposition fails to answer the most obvious questions about the episode: What precisely was the relationship between the president and Ms. Lewinsky? Why were such extraordinary efforts made by people in high places to find a job for a bottom-level government functionary?

The conspiracy theorists here immediately began speculating that the disclosure of the deposition was a "strategic leak" by Mr. Clinton's lawyers because it generally supports the president's public remarks since the controversy started. However, Michael McCurry, the White House press secretary, called the leak "a reprehensible and unethical act by the antagonists of the president." But he didn't say that the account was inaccurate.

Whatever the origin of the deposition, it was clear that the Post operated under some journalistic strictures. At no point in a story that ran more than six columns in type is there a single direct quotation of Mr. Clinton. At no point is there any attribution, however vague, indicating the origin of the leak. The inference that newspaper reporters draw from those omissions is that those were conditions the Post had to accept to be allowed to view the videotape.

Although the deposition provides no smoking gun about the president's conduct, it does confirm some previously leaked details that raise obvious questions. Mr. Clinton concedes, for example, that he exchanged gifts with Ms. Lewinsky and that he saw her at the White House perhaps five times and may have been alone with her. Mr. Clinton concedes that, contrary to what he said as a candidate in 1992, he did have a sexual relationship with Gennifer Flowers, although he says on only one occasion, in 1977, rather than, as Ms. Flowers always insisted, engaging in a 12-year affair.

Taken as a whole, the account of the deposition doesn't add any critical new insight into the matter.

Absent some mystery witness, no one is ever going to know for certain what happened between Mr. Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky. Nor is there any hard evidence that would establish that the president and his friend Vernon Jordan tried to buy Ms. Lewinsky's silence by finding her a new job.

A name to remember

But the deposition fills out a little the picture of a puzzling and peculiar relationship between the president and the intern. At the least, it is clear that Monica Lewinsky, unlike Paula Jones, is a woman Mr. Clinton is going to remember.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/09/98

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