Clinton's sexual scorched-earth plan

The White House may be ready to declare a 'total war' on Congress over the Lewinsky case.

Published August 5, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Just before the 1988 elections, Republican operative Lee Atwater began spreading a rumor that Democratic House Speaker Thomas Foley was gay. When the rumor reached Rep. Barney Frank, at the time the only openly homosexual member of Congress, Frank acted quickly and decisively. He informed Atwater that unless the rumors about Foley ceased immediately, he would personally out six gay Republicans on the floor of the House.

The GOP whisper campaign halted dead in its tracks.

A decade later, as Kenneth Starr moves to wrap up his investigation of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and submit his final report to Congress on his four-year-long criminal probe of the president, the lessons of that confrontation have not been lost on some Clinton allies. While Republican and Democratic lawmakers, pundits and supporters urge the president to apologize for a sexual relation with Lewinsky to avoid impeachment, these die-hard Clinton loyalists are spreading the word that a long-ignored but fearsome tactic has now resurfaced as an element in the president's survival strategy: The threat of exposing the sexual improprieties of Republican critics, both in Congress and beyond, should they demand impeachment hearings in the House.

"We're talking about the Doomsday Machine here," one close ally of the president told Salon, alluding to the unstoppable chain of retaliatory nuclear strikes in the movie, "Dr. Strangelove." "Once the Doomsday Machine is set in motion, there will be no stopping it. The Republicans with skeletons in their closets must assume everything is known and will come out. So the question is: Do they really want to go there?"

The threat to out the president's critics is not new. It first surfaced on Feb. 8, when former White House advisor George Stephanopoulos, analyzing the then-2-week-old Lewinsky scandal for ABC's "This Week," said White House allies were "starting to whisper about what I'll call the 'Ellen Rometsch' strategy." Stephanopoulos then went on to explain that Rometsch was an East German spy who had slept with President John Kennedy as well as many other congressmen and senators.

"Robert Kennedy was charged with getting her out of the country and also getting [FBI Director] John Edgar Hoover to go to the Congress and say, 'Don't you investigate this, because if you do, we're going to open up everybody's closets," Stephanopoulos said. Returning to the Lewinsky scandal, he added: "I think that in the long run, they have a deterrent strategy" (of gathering embarrassing details about the private lives of Clinton's congressional critics and threatening to leak them to the media).

As part of his defense in the Paula Jones sexual misconduct lawsuit, Clinton's lawyers retained private investigator Terry Lenzner, whose company, Investigative Group International, conducted interviews and public record searches to gather information on Jones' sexual history. Clinton's critics now believe IGI, which employs lawyers, former FBI, CIA and DEA agents, ex-cops and former reporters, was also hired to dig up dirt on the president's accusers in the Lewinsky scandal as well. Lenzner could not be reached for comment.

Sources in the Clinton camp say they are focusing their attention not only on issues of marital infidelity but also on issues of character. Among those under scrutiny, these sources say, are House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who asked his wife for a divorce while she lay in a hospital bed stricken with cancer; and House Majority Leader Richard Armey, who, according to an article in the Dallas Observer, pressured female students for dates when he was an economics professor at North Texas State University.

Another known target is Dan Burton, one of Clinton's most outspoken Republican critics. "Burton's political enemies are investigating his background, especially with regard to women," says Harrison Ullman, editor of Nuvo, a newsweekly in Indianapolis. The Clinton camp's hunt for dirt also could extend to Henry Hyde, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the man who will be responsible for holding impeachment hearings, knowledgeable sources told Salon.

With the reemergence of the "Rometsch Strategy," along with Lewinsky's long-forgotten stained dress, the political stakes have increased significantly in these days before crucial grand jury testimony by Lewinksy and Clinton himself. Lewinsky, who received blanket immunity from prosecution last week, could testify as early as this week. Clinton is scheduled to testify from the White House via closed-circuit television on Aug. 17.

The theory behind this scorched-earth tactic is simple: Who among the congressmen is pure enough to pass judgment on the president's private life? That question is now resonating around Capitol Hill, where a number of key lawmakers have pledged to forego impeachment proceedings if Clinton simply fesses up to an affair with Lewinsky. Left unspoken in those appeals, some members say, is a growing concern that impeachment hearings will result in an avalanche of leaks about sexual indiscretions by Republican congressmen that could expose their hypocrisy and destroy their political careers.

"That's one reason why they don't want to touch the Starr investigation," says Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C. "It's too close for comfort."

Congress may sit on a hill overlooking the White House, but Clinton's allies are well aware that Congress doesn't hold the moral high ground. It is a fact of Washington life that testosterone levels run high on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers, working long hours far away from their home districts and families, find themselves tempted by the scores of female aides working in the House and Senate. Five years ago, Sen. Robert Packwood resigned from the Senate after accusations that he groped, fondled and kissed scores of female aides. His diaries revealed that he had consensual sexual relations with several aides. Other notorious philanderers on Capitol Hill include former Rep. Wayne Hays, who supported his lover at the taxpayers' expense by putting her on his staff as a secretary with minimal clerical duties, and former Rep. Wilbur Mills, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, who was discovered to be having an affair with a stripper.

Clinton allies say the president's strategy is based on the certainty that once Starr has submitted his report to Congress, probably sometime this fall, Clinton's ordeal will move from the precise legal realm of subpoenas and sworn testimony to the unpredictable arena of politics. After the House Judiciary Committee has studied Starr's report, it will have to decide whether it is going to hold public impeachment hearings. The theory is that if Chairman Hyde and other Republicans on the committee know that, metaphorically speaking, their arms will be broken, they will be much less likely to raise them in a vote favoring impeachment hearings.

"This is a scorched earth strategy," says Michael Zeldin, a former federal prosecutor who frequently comments on the legal aspects of the Lewinsky investigation for television news shows. "And it's got people on the Hill very nervous because many of them are living in glass houses as well."

But Zeldin notes that the strategy is also a risky one for Clinton. "Let's say the Lewinsky dress comes back with sure-fire evidence of a sexual affair," he says. "In that sense, Clinton may be no different from two-thirds of the members in Congress who have similar dalliances with interns or lobbyists or whomever. The difference, of course, is that none of them have been asked about it under oath. So you already have begun to hear members say that this is not about having an affair. It's about lying under oath about an affair. So I'm not so sure about the vitality of that strategy."

Another flaw in the president's scorched earth strategy is that in the past, Congress,
when confronted with evidence of wrongdoing by its members, has been willing to judge its own, sometimes harshly. Packwood was censured for his sexual excesses, Gingrich received a reprimand and fine for ethical lapses. In short, the rules of Congress worked.

But in the event of total war, there are no rules and no way to prevent a frenzy of sexual tattling from hurting Democrats too. "On both sides of the aisle, no one wants to see it spin out of control," says Rep. Joe Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who fell in love with a young staff member a few years ago, left his wife and annulled their marriage. "But anything could happen."

Yet another political factor that could set the Doomsday scenario into motion is the influence of right-wing groups like the Family Research Council, headed by Gary Bauer, and James Dobson's Focus on the Family. These conservative organizations, which are now driving the social and family values agenda within the Republican Party, are not happy with Republican moderates like Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who have offered Clinton forgiveness in return for a mea culpa. For these groups, adultery and lying about it, under oath or not, are sins, period. Republicans could suffer in the midterm elections this fall if they don't demonstrate their willingness to punish Clinton for his alleged indiscretions. Clinton's threat, therefore, also means that some Republican lawmakers could suffer at the hands of these groups when the details of their own sins begin leaking out.

The result of all this is a capital facing the prospect of a sexual Götterdämerung, a spectacle in which reputations may be strewn about like body parts in "Saving Private Ryan." The bottom line is that if anyone thought this scandal hit bottom with the reappearance of Lewinsky's telltale dress, think again. This scandal could get a lot nastier before it's over.

By Harry Jaffe

Harry Jaffe is a leading journalist covering Washington, DC—its politics, its crime, its heroes and villains. Beyond Washington, Jaffe’s work has been published in Yahoo News, Men’s Health,Harper’s, Esquire, and newspapers from the San Francisco Examiner to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s appeared in documentary films, and on television and radio across the country and throughout Europe.

MORE FROM Harry Jaffe

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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