'Legal experts' offer Clinton chorus of unsolicited advice Dearth of facts feeds 'speculative fervor'

August 13, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton should refuse to testify before the grand jury, no matter what the political price.

He should testify fully and truthfully, and then tell all to the American people about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, even if it means saying he previously lied.

He should testify, but refuse to answer any questions about sex.

He should stick to his original story -- deny, deny, deny!

So goes the chorus of free, unsolicited legal advice being offered these days to the president, in the press and on the airwaves, in advance of his session Monday with the office of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and the Lewinsky grand jury.

The vast range of the speculation, advice and predictions -- from celebrated defense lawyers to little-known former federal prosecutors -- reflects the uncharted territory Clinton finds himself in as the first president to testify before a grand jury in a case in which he is the target.

In fact, one of the only pronouncements on which all the experts seem to agree is that there are no easy answers, and Clinton has few if any good options.

But this season of incessant legal talk also reflects the lack of hard information or real news available on the scandal, as well as the ever-expanding chattering class of lawyers spawned by cable networks that must fill hour after hour,day after day.

Talking heads have been plucked from all over: Watergate days, the O. J. Simpson trial, academia, politics. A few, such as Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University professor who specializes in environmental law but has cultivated a sort of sound-bite scholarship, have been far more visible than any of the actual players or lawyers in the Lewinsky saga.

One frequent voice, Stuart Taylor Jr., a legal affairs columnist for the National Journal, went so far as to allow television cameras at his vacation spot on Cape Cod so he wouldn't miss a chance to opine.

"We've suddenly produced a whole corpus of lawyers who seem to have nothing better to do than try to get face time on television," says Stephen Hess, a senior government studies fellow at the Brookings Institution. "I pass them by on my way from C-SPAN to the Orioles game. They're uniquely uninteresting. It's a terrible commentary on the legal profession."

Sharp contrast

The all-attorney-all-the-time airwaves and Op-Ed pages stand in contrast to the tight group of counselors who actually have knowledge of the situation and are crafting a strategy with Clinton. That exclusive group is composed of Clinton's private -- lawyers David E. Kendall, Nicole Seligman and Mickey Kantor, a former commerce secretary who has returned as an outside attorney -- the only people whose conversations with the president are protected by attorney-client privilege -- and Hillary Rodham Clinton, also a lawyer.

Harry Thomason, a Hollywood producer and longtime Clinton friend who testified this week before Starr's grand jury, has remained in Washington to help coach Clinton on his delivery.

Jim Kennedy, a spokesman for the White House counsel's office, said he doubts that the legal static -- "and there's plenty for the asking," he concedes -- is permeating the executive mansion's family quarters, where Clinton and his lawyers are meeting in preparation for the session Monday.

Kennedy, the spokesman in charge of scandal matters, says there are "so many Op-Eds, so many papers, so many interviews on TV" that it's hard to keep up with what's being said by whom.

The shift from the usual rumor mill to the "speculative fervor" over what Clinton will do, could do or should do, Kennedy says, is a product of "the dearth of hard information."

Indeed, it's possible that only two people -- Clinton and Lewinsky -- know the full truth about what sort of relationship the president and the former intern had. But that has hardly stopped "legal experts" from handing out advice.

Unsolicited advice

Here's the advice most of them say they would give to Clinton: The mea culpa: Tell all to the grand jury and then address the American people with a full explanation of your relationship with Lewinsky -- even if it means admitting some sort of sexual contact. This is perhaps the most unlikely scenario. It's based on the assumption that Clinton lied under oath in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case when he denied that he and Lewinsky had had a sexual relationship. It is espoused by several former White House lawyers and officials, including former chief of staff Leon E. Panetta.

Sound bite: "I think this matter is important enough that he should sit down, stare the American people in the eye and do it directly from the Oval Office." -- Panetta

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