Plugged Up

Allegations that the president's personal secretary was involved in a cover-up--obscured in the headlines by the White House's skillful media handling--represent the biggest danger yet for Clinton's credibility.

EVEN IN THE wake of press reports telling us of highly damaging new evidence that Bill Clinton orchestrated an obstruction of justice, the president is soaring in the polls to record highs. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, released on Sunday, gives the president a job-approval rating of 79 percent. The same poll shows that 57 percent of Americans want independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation to be called off.

How does one explain this odd conjunction? In the first place, Clinton got lucky: The New York Times story revealing that the president may have involved his oh-so-private secretary, Betty Currie, in a coverup broke on a Friday morning. Most Americans get their news from television, and the Friday night newscasts have the lowest ratings of any workweek evening (and next-day print coverage was thus in Saturday's papers, the least-read). By Sunday the allegations--that Clinton had Currie retrieve his gifts from Lewinsky, and coached her on his version of events--were old news.

Moreover, the president's humor-laced stonewalling of any questions about the scandal at his Friday press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair yielded only positive sound bites for the president. One reason was that Clinton, on the advice of his handlers, carefully declined to recognize representatives of CBS, ABC, NBC, the Washington Post, the New York Times, or the Los Angeles Times--reporters almost certain to ask toughies--and instead picked out obscure back-row boys and radio reporters, who tossed him verbal nerfballs.

Finally, the White House team mounted a counterattack by sending the president's lawyer, David Kendall, in front of the mics to demand an investigation of leaks from Starr's office. That, by virtue of timing, became the lead story on the night's network news, ahead of the Currie revelations. (Kendall's moralizing about leaks and his simultaneous criticism of the media for printing them was somewhat disingenuous, since he is also the attorney for the National Enquirer. But it worked--the leaks question dominated the weekend TV news shows.)

Now, everybody involved in this story has been leaking, including the White House, and it is entirely conceivable that the Currie leaks came from somewhere other than Starr's office.
A careful read of the Times story shows that it was attributed to lawyers who were familiar with what Currie had told investigators.

It could have come from the FBI, all of whose agents are either lawyers or accountants, and which has been notoriously porous under its current management. Or it could even have come from Clinton-friendly lawyers to set up both the media and Starr and take the sting out of material that, sooner or later, would become public anyway--a tactic used to great effect by the White House in the Whitewater and Donorgate scandals. Newsweek's Evan Thomas, who has been honchoing his mag's coverage of the Monica Lewinsky case, nearly said as much on Friday night's Charlie Rose show, when he warned his fellow panelists against concluding that Starr was the source for the Currie leaks. On the show, Thomas intimated he knew where the leaks did come from--and on a related story, his mag this week sources "lawyers close to the Clinton defense."

But even though the Currie revelations had not yet fully permeated the public's consciousness by the time the Journal began polling, they represent the biggest danger yet for Clinton's credibility. The fact that the president called Currie into his office on a Sunday--the day after Clinton's deposition denying sex with Lewinsky--to review with her what he'd said may still leave some legal wiggle room against charges of witness coaching; that depends on the precise language of Currie's testimony, which we won't know for sure until Starr reports to Congress. But if Clinton instructed Currie to take the gifts (which were under subpoena at the time) from Lewinsky, that constitutes prima facie evidence of an intent to obstruct justice.

However, according to CBS, Starr has decided not to try to indict the president in court, but instead to submit his eventual findings to the House Judiciary Committee. And Clinton stands little risk of being impeached while his poll numbers stay high. At this point, the Republicans from swing districts that gave the GOP control of Congress don't want to have to defend an impeachment vote against a popular president before the voters this fall.

Nor does the GOP leadership wish to have President Gore, with all the power and free publicity attending an incumbent, at the head of the Democratic ticket in 2000. Americans don't like this sordid story, but their anger has been turned not against the miscreant but against the media. If that continues, Clinton won't be impeached.

 
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