Clinton's videotaped moment of truth President appeared calm at instant his political life was placed in jeopardy

The Impeachment Hearings

December 11, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- Jan. 17, 1998. Sitting against a stark white wall, occasionally sipping from a white coffee cup, President Clinton appeared cool, even confident at the very moment he was putting his presidency in jeopardy.

Sometimes pausing when asked about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Clinton nonetheless seemed at ease with his answers as he calmly denied a sexual relationship with Lewinsky and said he couldn't remember even being alone with her.

"I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky," he said. "I've never had an affair with her."

"I don't recall" ever being alone with her, he added later.

Made under oath, they were the answers that got Clinton in trouble, answers his lawyers now call maddening and which one his accusers said yesterday came from "his own crafty mind."

Just a few words, videotaped in a deposition he gave in a sexual-misconduct lawsuit, they set off a months-long cover-up as well as charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power that could lead to a vote by the House of Representatives next week to impeach him. Clinton made the responses Jan. 17 as part of Paula Corbin Jones' sexual-misconduct lawsuit against him. The lawsuit was later dismissed.

Americans got their first chance to see the tape yesterday as the House Judiciary Committee released excerpts as it prepares to vote on four proposed articles of impeachment against Clinton. Transcripts were released in October, but the tape had been seen only by Jones' attorneys, the staff of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and committee members and staff.

In these tapes, Clinton reveals none of the animation, none of the anger or charm he showed a federal grand jury that questioned him six months later. Sitting erect, the president spends much of the time looking in the direction of his attorney, Robert S. Bennett, or straight ahead.

It is such a neutral performance that attorneys for both sides used different parts of the tape to punctuate their arguments that Clinton was a calculating liar in the tape or that he was trapped by a confusing definition of sexual relations.

"I thought you and the public should hear how this all first started," said Abbe D. Lowell, the Democratic counsel to the House Judiciary Committee as he introduced the first excerpts.

He played a section showing Clinton sitting passively, occasionally fidgeting with his pen or his glasses, while his attorney, another unidentified attorney and U.S. Judge Susan Webber Wright debate what definition of sexual relations should be used in questioning Clinton.

Given a definition that did not include oral sex, Clinton said he did not have sexual relations with Lewinsky. Lowell conceded that Clinton was trying to deceive the questioners from discovering his relationship with Lewinsky.

"His responses were an attempt to answer the questions evasively," Lowell said. "In the 20/20 hindsight of almost a year, -- we know he could have, should have, acted better." But Lowell insisted that Clinton did not intend to lie, and that he should not be impeached for his deception.

David P. Schippers, the Republican counsel to the committee, showed several more excerpts of the taped testimony. "I'd like you to listen to the president's deceptions for yourself," he said, turning to questions of whether Clinton was ever alone in the Oval Office or an adjoining hallway where Lewinsky later testified she and Clinton engaged in oral sex.

Asked whether he was ever alone with Lewinsky in the Oval Office, Clinton paused for five seconds, and said, "I don't recall."

In another section, Clinton is seen steadily watching his lawyer as Bennett tells the judge that "there is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form." Clinton later told a grand jury that he did not correct Bennett because he was not paying attention.

Said Schippers: "Do you think for one minute the president wasn't paying attention?"

Pub Date: 12/11/98

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