The Magazine


Feb 9, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 21 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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PRESIDENT CLINTON MAY HAVE FINALLY denied flat out that he had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, but the country is still waiting for prominent Democrats to say they believe him. Strip away the qualifiers, and public support for the president has ranged from hesitant to ainusingly tortured. Is there anyone in Washington who will take Clinton at his word? Ann Lewis will. "The president denied these allegations clearly, personally, directly," says Lewis, director of communications at the White House. "And I believe him. That's easy. When are we going to get to the complicated questions?"

Here's one: Who besides Ann Lewis can say the same thing? Lewis doesn't pause. "My phone has been ringing all week with people who are strong supporters of the president," she says. Fair enough. What are their names? Well, says Lewis, I'd love to tell you, "but if you called them up and said 'Ann Lewis told me to call,' they would call me back and say, 'Why did you give my name to that guy from that right-wing magazine?' It's a little hard. I'm trying to figure out how to do this."

Ann Lewis never called back. Nor were Democrats on the Hill much help. An informal survey of Democratic members of Congress taken after Clinton's State of the Union speech last week found only one -- John Lewis of Georgia -- who would state simply, "I believe him." Seconds after the words left the congressman's lips, one of his aides thrust a press release into a reporter's hand. "I believe the president is entitled to the legal presumption of innocence until proven guilty," read Lewis's official, clarified statement. It ended: "For those without sin, let them cast the first stone."

Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California wouldn't go that far. "That's not the question we're here to discuss," she replied when asked if Clinton's denials are plausible. "We're here to talk about the state of the union. I'm not up on the latest news and all." Who, then, will defend the president? Sanchez looked relieved -- finally a question she could answer. "John Lewis," she said, "I heard him say it in a meeting."

So few people in Washington believe the president, says political writer Michael Barone, that being one of them "is like being a gay lineman on a football team. You just don't want to start discussing it." Democrats who don't believe Clinton are in an even tougher spot. "There are people in the administration I haven't called because I don't want to make them lie to me," says Jacob Weisberg, who is covering the Lewinsky story for Slate magazine. According to at least one person who knows him, even the ever- faithful Harold Ickes, recently summoned back to Washington after his humiliating post-election firing, is still "on the fence" when it comes to the Lewinsky matter.

Why the reluctance to defend the president? "People are cowards," says one former White House aide bitterly. "Washington is full of cowards." There are other reasons, of course, beginning with the lack of loyalty Clinton commands among Hill Democrats. But the biggest problem for would-be Clinton apologists is more basic: They don't know what to say. If Clinton's denials are true, then what exactly was his relationship with Monica Lewinsky?

An explanation from Clinton himself may be months away. A full accounting may never come at all. In the meantime, defenders of the administration will need a story to tell reporters -- and themselves -- about what, exactly, went on between the president and his intern. Simply denying the whole thing won't work; too much evidence exists to show that the two knew each other. Clinton will have to admit to something.

Interviews with current and former White House staff suggest a developing storyline. The president will ultimately concede -- either directly or through intermediaries -- that he and Lewinsky did indeed share an "emotional relationship," a perhaps unseemly but non-sexual bond of the kind that sometimes grows between young women and their middle-aged, emotionally needy employers. "All of it reflects bad judgment on his part," says one prominent Democrat who has been in close contact with the White House recently. "It is bad judgment for any older man to fall into that situation. But it is not criminal. And it is not sexual. It's a sustainable argument." Here is the fulllength version of that argument: