Video tapes may not be knockout punch GOP wanted

September 23, 1998|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- If the Republicans who control the House Judiciary Committee expected their decision to air the videotape of President Clinton's grand jury testimony would deal him a political death blow, they are likely to be disappointed.

Although the president was seen insisting on his contorted, even ridiculous, definition of sexual relations, and although his frequent memory lapses were conspicuously on display, the prosecutors were no match for his artful dodging.

Prior to the airing, reports were rampant of how Mr. Clinton would be seen as angrily losing his temper under their barrage of questions about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Indeed, there were flashes of his bitterness toward the ordeal imposed on him by independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

But the politician famed for his talent for making words mean what he wants them to was equal to the challenge from his interrogators, for the most part controlling himself and sticking to his position that he did not commit perjury or obstruction of justice as charged in the Starr report.

Nobody accused of the allegations against Mr. Clinton, with an employee less than half his age, was going to come out of such a cross-examination unscathed. The demand for a House impeachment inquiry doubtless will go forward, but there is little reason to suspect now that the public consensus that Mr. Clinton should remain in office will be turned around by his televised encounter with Mr. Starr and his associates.

Declining to be specific about the exact nature of his sexual conduct, Mr. Clinton said he was doing so in an effort to protect his family and "preserve the dignity of the office I hold." That was a big order, inasmuch as he repeatedly left unchallenged questions about engaging in oral sex in the Oval Office. He continued to draw the distinction that if it was performed on him rather than the other way around, he was truthful in denying he had had sex with Ms. Lewinsky.

Unlike his undisguised ire in denouncing Mr. Starr in his televised statement immediately following the four-hour ordeal at the White House on Aug. 17, Mr. Clinton calmly took advantage of the Starr lawyers' insistent questioning to suggest that they were trying to trick him. Without losing his cool, he cast them as grand inquisitors who were "desperately trying to validate the tremendous amount of money they had spent" to bring him down.

For all the attempts by the prosecutors to corner him, it was ZTC grand jurors asking occasional questions through the lawyers who caused Mr. Clinton some of his most uncomfortable moments. After much indirect interrogation by the lawyers on the subject, one juror wanted to know, point blank: "Did Monica Lewinsky perform oral sex on you?" The president, a bit flustered, replied that since that act was not included in the definition of sexual relations in the Jones case, "I'm not going to answer."

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of Mr. Clinton's testimony was that in this matter as in many others in his career, he turned to semantic evasions to bail himself out. In his deposition in the Jones case, he said at one point, "I was doing my best to be truthful, but I had no obligation to be helpful" to Ms. Jones' lawyers, who sometimes failed, he said, to ask him the right questions about his behavior.

The president clearly is not out of the woods after the blanketing of his videotape across American television. But neither did it prove to be the silver bullet some Republicans hoped would shoot him down.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 9/23/98

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