Explicit topics, evasive replies Clinton seems morose, flip, argumentative, charming, self-pitying

Expected fireworks fizzle

Few surprises seen in historic videotape

impact is uncertain

The Clinton Investigation

September 22, 1998|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With the specter of impeachment looming, the House of Representatives beamed President Clinton's sexually explicit grand jury session into millions of American homes yesterday. The national television audience saw an evasive Clinton spar with prosecutors over intimate details of his private life but give no ground on his denial of a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

As expected, the four hours of history-making videotape included graphic and, at times, shocking descriptions of intimate behavior involving the president and the former White House intern. In the unblinking eye of a single fixed camera, Clinton seems by turns charming, morose, flip, argumentative and self-pitying. At one point, he wags his finger at prosecutors in the same manner he used in January when he publicly denied having had a sexual affair with "that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

White House aides and congressional Republicans said it would take several days at least, to measure the impact of the videotape on public opinion. Overall, however, the taped testimony seemed to fall far short of the advance billings of both Clinton's defenders and his foes -- who had predicted that emotional fireworks would be on display.

Details of his testimony were previously covered by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's 445-page report to the House. Whether Clinton lied in his testimony about the relationship -- which Lewinsky said involved intimate touching by Clinton that he denies -- still boils down to a he-said, she-said situation.

Clinton told the grand jury that he had not lied in denying a sexual relationship with Lewinsky in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case, asserting that their encounters did not meet the definition of sexual relations offered by her lawyers. But Lewinsky has testified that Clinton touched her in a manner that would meet that definition.

'The most mysterious area'

Volunteering his own view on the last such controversy to come before Congress -- the 1991 testimony of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill -- Clinton remarked: "I believed that they both thought they were telling the truth. This is, you're dealing with, in some ways, the most mysterious area of human life. I'm doing the best I can to give you honest answers."

Yesterday was the first opportunity for most Americans to see Clinton employing a full array of verbal gymnastics and semantic line-drawing as he fought prosecutors' attempts to prove that he lied when he denied under oath in January that he had had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky.

'Some sort of gotcha game'

Referring to that testimony in the Jones case, Clinton said Jones' lawyers were playing "some sort of a gotcha game" when they took his deposition.

"My goal in this deposition was to be truthful, but not particularly helpful," Clinton testified, a low growl creeping into his voice. "But I was determined to walk through the minefield of this deposition without violating the law, and I believe I did."

In his report to the House 10 days ago, Starr alleged that Clinton lied about Lewinsky in the Jones case, and he cited that allegation as the first of 11 potential grounds for impeachment of the president.

A matter of definition

Clinton testified that he "did things that were, when I was alone with her, that were inappropriate and wrong." But he also defended the truthfulness of his testimony in the Jones case, which Clinton described as a "bogus" lawsuit, when he testified under oath that he did not recall being alone with Lewinsky.

"Well, again, it depends on how you define 'alone,' " he said, smiling. "There were a lot of times when we were alone, but I never really thought we were."

Clinton refused to answer most of the prosecutors' direct questions about the details of his sexual encounters with Lewinsky, explaining his reticence as "an effort to preserve the dignity of the office I hold."

"I do not want to discuss something that is intensely painful to me," he said. "This has been tough enough already on me and my family, although I take responsibility for it. I have no one to blame but myself."

Lapses in memory

At other times, Clinton claimed that his memory had failed him, even though, by all estimates, he has a near-photographic memory and can recall thousands of names and faces of people he has met only once or twice.

"I have been blessed and advantaged in my life with a good memory," he testified, but added that he and his friends have been surprised by how many things he has forgotten since he became president. Clinton suggested that "the pressure of your four-year inquiry" was partly to blame.

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