This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on August 17, 1998
Monica Beach, as the tiny little strand of concrete park across from Washington's E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse has come to be known, was packed to overflowing in honor of its namesake. News photographers with brightly colored sun umbrellas, tourists, gawkers, political hangers-on - all were gathered for what was surely one of history's tackier moments. Monica Lewinsky, the 25-year-old former White House intern, is no Marilyn Monroe, one of her glittering predecessors in the annals of presidential flings. But in her early morning pearls and dark-blue wool suit, biting her lower lip in apprehension, Lewinsky exuded some of Monroe's gritty vulnerability as she quickly braved the Monica Beach crowd, took the private elevator up three floors to the grand jury room and, according to leaked reports, testified under oath that she had a sexual relationship with President Bill Clinton at the White House between November, 1995, and May, 1997.
Across America, Lewinsky's version of the facts - never really doubted by the constantly polled public - unleashed a new wave of televised opinion-mongering on the sexual and political mores of the day. Only the White House professed disinterest. "Work goes on here every day, and it continues to go on, and it is unimpeded and unaffected by events outside of here," said deputy White House press secretary Barry Toiv, as if the building was somehow cut off from the rest of the planet. Even the terror bombings in East Africa offered only a brief respite from the unrelenting media focus on Lewinsky. In the midst of the frenzy, tourist Jamie Harris posed with his family in front of the forest of microphones and cameras at the Washington courthouse and noted, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, "This is a long way from Kansas." And behind the business-as-usual facade, Clinton was no doubt wishing it was all a bad dream.
After Monica week, the President's political skies looked decidedly more clouded. Lewinsky's evidence directly contradicted Clinton's sworn deposition in Paula Jones's sexual harassment case last January, where he denied having sex with Lewinsky. He had also explicitly stated on television that he never had a sexual relationship with "that woman - Ms. Lewinsky." Republican and Democratic members of Congress alike told Maclean's that the damage to his character and credibility was now so deep that it was becoming increasingly difficult to imagine how the so-called Comeback Kid could do it again. "Of course, Lewinsky is on our minds, but we're trying not to talk about her," said Manhattan Democrat Jerry Nadler gloomily. "We're on hold, we're in a wait-and-see mode," said Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat.
Sex - even the besotted sort, with allegations of heavy petting and oral sex in the White House in exchange for gifts of Walt Whitman's poetry and presidential souvenirs - pervades the Lewinsky investigation. But it is not the focus. If special prosecutor Kenneth Starr reports to Congress that there is enough evidence that the President committed perjury or conspired with Lewinsky to have her lie under oath in the Paula Jones case, then Clinton could face a drawn-out debate in Congress over whether to charge him. Although most analysts believe he will ultimately escape impeachment, some think that the process could cripple his presidency.
On Monday, Aug. 17, Clinton gets to tell his version of events to the 23-member grand jury, just before he takes off with wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea to Martha's Vineyard for a holiday. And official Washington is abuzz with speculation about what he will say. The President has been given special dispensation to speak to the grand jury from the White House via closed-circuit television, a medium that is often kind to Clinton. Close friend Harry Thomason, a producer of hit TV shows, is jetting in from Hollywood to advise on the presentation.
Clinton already has a pretty good idea of what he has to respond to. Theoretically, grand jury testimony is given under strict rules of secrecy. In Lewinsky's 6 ½ hours on the stand, not even her own lawyers were present. But several sources involved in the proceedings reported afterward that she was highly emotional and tearful at times. According to these sources - unnamed, as always, in various U.S. media - she told the jury that on at least a dozen occasions, some very late at night, she was given special access to the White House and met with Clinton in a small room off the Oval Office. She was infatuated with Clinton and felt that she was in love with him. But in the end, there may have been very little romance, for Lewinsky evidently said the trysts were short and that most of the time Clinton was simply interested in oral sex. Starr's lawyers reportedly led her through her story in excruciating and sordid detail.
Lewinsky also said, according to the sources, that after she was subpoenaed to give evidence in Jones's harassment case against Clinton last November, she discussed a "cover" story with the President and agreed to deny that sex ever occurred between them. He is alleged to have suggested hypothetical ways that she might avoid co-operating with Jones's lawyers. But never, she stressed, did the President ever ask her to commit perjury. Later, when Clinton's friends made great efforts to find her a high-paying job in New York City, she said there was never any indication that they were doing so in return for keeping the explosive affair under wraps.
As part of her immunity from prosecution - an immunity that extends to her mother and father, in whom she confided and who had been threatened with further grand jury appearances (her mother, Marcia Lewis, broke off testimony in February, saying she was too distraught to continue) - Lewinsky handed over a high-necked blue dress from The Gap that allegedly bears traces of presidential semen. Although FBI tests on the dress were supposed to be top secret, leaks emerged at week's end indicating the laboratory was confident it could lift a DNA sample that could be compared with one from Clinton.
Damaging as Lewinsky's testimony was, it does leave Clinton some wiggle room. Her statement that he did not ask her to commit perjury gives credence to Clinton's oft-repeated line: "I have never told anyone to lie, not a single time." But his options now seem more limited than ever. He can offer a full mea culpa to the American public, as advisers such as former press spokesman George Stephanopoulos are urging him to do. He could waffle and argue that while he had a close and perhaps inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky, it did not include intercourse (however, the definition of sex read to him by lawyers at his deposition included the oral variety). Or he could continue to brazen it out and say he did not have sex with "that woman," that her testimony is fantasy, her word against his. If there is no proof of sex there can be no perjury or obstruction charge, Clinton may reason. But at this point, he does not know what the DNA stains on the little blue dress reveal.
All of these scenarios, however, still lead to some kind of showdown in Congress over impeachment. Starr's four-year, $60-million probe of alleged wrongdoing in the White House - an investigation that has veered from Arkansas real estate purchases to the abuse of travel vouchers in the White House and now to Monica Lewinsky - may land on the desk of lawmakers with the thunk of righteous retribution as early as next month. Clinton's Republican opponents, who control Congress, do not seem eager to pursue the impeachment issue before midterm elections for all of the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate take place in November. After all, most surveys show Americans have no appetite for impeachment regardless of what their President did in the wee hours in the Oval Office study. Moreover, the Republican margin in the House is only 10 seats, and many races are too close to call.
But if the Republicans still hold sway after November, insiders say, a scorching Starr report would make impeachment hearings difficult to avoid, even though the party doesn't really want them. The Republicans would prefer to see a badly damaged Clinton stay in power and in the process taint clean-living Vice-President Al Gore, the likely Democratic candidate in the 2000 presidential election. So Clinton may not be hounded from office for his alleged sexual peccadillos, but he is likely to suffer from them for some time to come.
Maclean's August 17, 1998