What If Clinton's Telling Truth?
Jan. 31, 1998
WASHINGTON (AP) _ What if he's telling the truth?
What if it turns out, to the country's satisfaction, that President Clinton had no improper relationship with the most famous White House intern in history, and did not counsel her to lie?
Vindication raises the prospect that Clinton could emerge stronger than ever, Watergate prosecutor Kenneth Starr could be put out of business and the news media could suffer from a backlash for having jumped on the story with no hard evidence about what transpired between Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
So far, despite one of the most intense investigations of a president's private behavior in American history, no proof has been put forward that Clinton engaged in sexual relations with the former intern and sought to cover it up. He has gone public three times to deny the allegations.
So far, it is a classic he said-she said battle, except she, according to the lawyers involved, said one thing in a sworn affidavit given to Paula Jones' attorneys and something contrary in more than 20 hours of taped telephone conversations with a friend and coworker, Linda Tripp.
Political observers said that Clinton's absolution would leave him in a strong position _ and endanger Whitewater prosecutor Starr's reputation, his investigation, even the existence of the office of independent counsel.
``If it can be established to most people's satisfaction that Clinton did not have any sexual contact with Ms. Lewinsky, then he will be in a very, very strong position,'' said Stephen Wade, a Georgetown University political scientist and author of a book on presidential leadership.
Another presidential leadership scholar, Bert A. Rockman of the University of Pittsburgh, said he suspects public uncertainty is going to be the result at the end.
``My guess is that it is going to come down to one of those Clarence Thomas-Anita Jones types of things,'' Rockman said, recalling the inconclusive Senate hearings that aired charges that Thomas engaged in sexual harassment of his former colleague.
``But if it is shown that Paula Jones (who is suing Clinton for sexual harassment) has been put up to it by interests associated with the Republican Party and that Monica Lewinsky is having a rich fantasy life, then I think the president stands to benefit maximally,'' Rockman said.
``He then looks like a persecuted victim. And Starr stands to lose maximally because he looks like a persecutor.''
Polls suggest the American people increasingly uncertain that Clinton was sexually involved with his former intern _ but also increasingly willing to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt.
Clinton's approval ratings have surged to his highest levels ever. Yet half of those surveyed say they believe he had an affair with Ms. Lewinsky.
Of course, Clinton has his critics. When he visited Wisconsin last week, he could see the word ``impeach'' stamped in the snow. But he could also read a sign that said ``fact, not fiction.''
On a more personal level, Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, a political independent who usually votes with the Democrats, said if the public concludes that Clinton is innocent of improper behavior, the American people will feel that the president, his wife and their daughter have been humiliated ``and if this humiliation ends up being unjustified the people who have created the situation will be turned against.''
Sanders stressed that he had reached no conclusions ``as to whether the president is telling the truth'' and said the public lacks enough information to reach conclusions either.
But ``if the president is in fact shown to be telling the truth,'' Sanders said Republicans will be hurt and the president will be stronger than any time since he was elected.
``If somehow Clinton gets a clean bill of health, that certainly contributes to his presidency,'' Wade agreed. ``It's like recovering from an assassination attempt _ you're better off for it, especially if during the recovery process you've been pretty gracious.''
If Clinton winds up cleared of sexual misbehavior, he added, ``it may blow away the Starr investigation. It may blow away independent counsels and undercut congressional investigations.''
The news media also will suffer because of its willingness to pay such great attention to the matter with so few hard facts to go on, these observers said.
``Confidence in the press already ranks lower than confidence in politicians,'' said Martha Kukar, a Towson University professor in Maryland who writes about the White House and the press.
``It would make the anger felt at the media in England with regards to Princess Diana nothing compared to the anger felt at the media here,'' Sanders said.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Mike Feinsilber has covered the presidency since Lyndon B. Johnson held the office.