Clinton gives richly nuanced performance Answers rival soliloquies in a vintage act by the well-rehearsed president

The Clinton Investigation

September 22, 1998|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The witness was sworn in and asked to state his full name for the record.

"William Jefferson Clinton," he said, in what would be one of the rare direct answers offered during four hours of questioning.

Yesterday's broadcast of the president's videotaped testimony before the grand jury led by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr was an often dizzying descent into infinitesimal nuance and lawyerly equivocation.

What is sex? What is alone? What is, even, is?

Clinton proved to be an elusive witness, somehow managing to decry the hairsplitting that characterized much of the proceedings while ignoring that he was responsible for much of it.

"We've seen this four-year, $40 million investigation come down to parsing the definition of sex," he complained at one point, even as he spent hours defining sex so narrowly that oral sex was not included.

The pattern was set early on. A question about the oath he had just taken to tell the truth led to a long-winded discussion on whether it held the same meaning as the oath he took to tell the truth in his deposition for the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct lawsuit.

"Well, no one read me a definition then and we didn't go through this exercise then," he hedged.

Much of the performance -- and, it was a performance, with the president looking the camera straight in its unblinking eye and delivering seemingly well-rehearsed lines -- was vintage Clinton. The tenacity in getting his message out, regardless of how long it took to elaborate. The nondenial denials and nonanswer answers. The refusal to be pinned down.

At first, Clinton seemed unsure and subdued, not the president so often seen amid the flourishes of power and ceremony. But soon his confidence rose visibly with the task at hand. He allowed an occasional small smile and sometimes seemed to relish the verbal jousting.

And yet, the sight of Clinton verbally dancing around rather than directly answering simple questions was not as damning, or even as farcical, as it could have been. Credit the leak and spin cycle of Washington machinations.

Much of what emerged in the videotape had previously been leaked or was included in the Starr report, so it seemed like old news. Additionally, advance word had it that the tape would show Clinton red-faced and even stomping off in anger at the highly embarrassing questions posed by his inquisitors.

Instead, Clinton showed only occasional pique. He seemed a particularly smart student who had more than adequately studied for this quiz.

Even his flashes of anger seemed controlled and rehearsed. He shook that forefinger again, providing an unfortunate visual reminder of the last time he was seen making this emphatic gesture: when he faced the press and angrily denied having sexual relations with "that woman, Ms. Lewinsky."

This time, though, he did not make that same mistake of disparaging the former intern -- and in fact, he came off as rather kind and rueful about their relationship. There was a long exchange over an incident in which Monica Lewinsky became angered one day as she was kept waiting at a White House gate, only to learn from a Secret Service agent that Clinton was visiting with TV personality Eleanor Mondale.

"I'm quite aware that Ms. Lewinsky has a way of getting information out of people," he said, smiling indulgently, "when she's either charming or determined."

Clinton evenly deflected the most invasive questions -- about how he touched or kissed Lewinsky, and on which parts of her body -- by reverting to his position that he did not have sexual relations with her as he understood a definition given to him during the Jones deposition.

A question about the now-infamous cigar incident was met with a long silence and a raising of an eyebrow. He seemed not to have expected the question and stumbled through several attempts at answering before settling on this: that such an act might have been included in a second definition of sex that was given to him during the Jones deposition, but later stricken.

To the exasperation of his questioners, heard but not seen on the tape, Clinton managed to insert small monologues into the proceedings. He railed against the Jones' civil suit that accused him of sexual harassment, saying several times that it was funded by his political enemies and was proven to be "bogus." He got in what is sure to be a crowd-pleasing dig at Linda R. Tripp, saying she "betrayed" her friend Lewinsky and "stabbed her in the back."

The prosecutors seemed to grow impatient at times as they asked yes-or-no questions and Clinton instead went on at length. Clinton blithely ignored the conventional wisdom that witnesses should restrict themselves to the questions asked and not volunteer information.

But then this was no ordinary legal proceeding. This was videotaped, much like a television interview or a political debate would be. It is no small irony that this most media savvy of presidents would end up in the fight of his political life in the medium at which he's proved most comfortable.

Pub Date: 9/22/98

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