Clinton takes the offensive

The first lady helped craft an aggressive strategy after the president finally revealed details of the Lewinsky affair to her.

Published August 18, 1998 9:36AM (EDT)

The humble but agressive strategy President Clinton adopted in his speech
to the nation Monday night was partly crafted by First Lady Hillary Rodham
Clinton, acording to sources close to the First Lady. After Clinton
admitted to his wife that he had angaged in an affair with White House
intern Monica Lewinsky, the First Lady urged him to accept responsibilities
for his actions and then come out swinging against what she and the
president believe to be a politicized Kennth Starr investigation. Salon first revealed that Clinton would adopt the attack strategy eight hours before the president spoke to the nation Monday night.

After an apologetic beginning to his speech, the president went on an all-out attack on Starr. Clinton stated: "I had real and serious concerns about an independent counsel investigation that began with private business dealings 20 years ago; dealings, I might add, about which an independent federal agency found no evidence of any wrongdoing by me or my wife over two years ago.

"The independent counsel investigation moved on to my staff and
friends, then into my private life. And now the investigation itself is
under investigation.

"This has gone on too long, cost too much and hurt too many
innocent people."

Clinton later added: "It's nobody's business but ours. Even presidents have private lives. It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives and get on with our national life."

This key aspect of the president's strategy -- to mount a counterattack against Starr -- was in sharp contrast to the meek and apologetic tack that Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward had suggested Clinton would take in an article on Sunday. Woodward quoted someone he identified as a "source with firsthand knowledge of the situation" as saying, "Starr wins. And we hope (Starr) wouldn't feel it necessary to drag the body
around the arena."

The tougher strategy that Clinton adopted at the 11th hour was apparently strongly advised by Hillary Clinton. According to sources at the White House, the president and first lady worked together
in what the source called a "strategy time" session to prepare for the president's address to the nation. According to one source, Clinton reworked a speech drafted by speechwriter
Michael Waldman. "He has an incredible ability to dig deep," said the source. "He's good at being humble."

As late as Friday, Hillary Clinton still believed that her husband was going to deny to a federal grand jury that he had engaged in a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, according to sources close to the first family.

Mrs. Clinton told confidants that day that she believed that a report that appeared that same morning in the New York Times saying that the president was going to tell the grand jury that he indeed had relations with Lewinsky to be erroneous. While the president and his legal team had by then already made the decision that Clinton would have to make some type of admission during his grand jury appearance, the first lady was said to be still in the dark regarding the decision, according to the account provided by the sources.

Afraid that the president might lack the resolve to tell his wife that he indeed did have a relationship with Lewinsky, the sources said, some administration officials decided to leak word to the New York Times that Clinton and his legal team had made the decision that he was going to withdraw his previous denials about the affair when he testified to the federal grand jury hearing evidence in the matter.

"That gave him resolve. That forced his hand to do what he had already decided to do," said one individual with firsthand knowledge of the events.
"He was going to tell the grand jury the truth. And he was going to have to tell his wife."

Just prior to the president's speech, his lawyer, David Kendall, released a statement explaining that Clinton had chosen not to answer all of Starr's questions during his testimony, in order to prevent the independent counsel's office from invading his privacy or undermining the "dignity" of the office of the presidency.

Several sources familiar with the situation say that Mrs. Clinton had until this weekend truly believed her husband's denial. Soon after the Lewinsky story broke in the press, the first lady took the offensive, charging on NBC's "Today" that the allegations were part of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" against her husband. She also said on the same program that it would be a very serious matter if any president lied under oath about such an alleged affair.

This most recent episode is yet another example of what several individuals close to the Clintons both here and in Little Rock say is the ability of the president to deceive even his own wife regarding his extramarital relationships. Over the course of the last year, more than 20 individuals who have been confidants, friends and political associates of both the president and first lady have discussed the Clintons' relationship and the allegations of sexual misconduct with Salon. Few were willing to speak for attribution, but many spoke with extraordinary candor.

It has been widely suggested that the first lady has tolerated her husband's conduct because of her own drive for political power.
David Maraniss, a Washington Post reporter who has written a biography of the president, "First in His Class," has written of the Clintons that "there is a degree of 'Don't ask, don't tell' in their partnership."

But virtually all of those interviewed in the last year say Hillary Clinton has truly believed her husband's denials. One longtime friend of both the Clintons described a first lady "who knows, but doesn't know," who always wanted to believe her husband, and also thought many of the allegations about the president's infidelities were fabricated by those who sought money or publicity, or by conservative opponents of the president.

"I don't like saying this, but he lied to her," says one longtime friend of both the president and Hillary Clinton. "He's a very good liar. And she didn't want to believe the worst about him." Another confidant said that the first lady often engaged in "self-delusion" and "self-denial" when she so readily accepted her husband's assurances that there was no truth to the allegations.

Two friends of the first lady recalled what Clinton told his wife when allegations first surfaced in the 1992 presidential campaign that Clinton had had an affair with Gennifer Flowers. Not only did Clinton deny the affair to his wife, friends said that Hillary Clinton had told them that she was present while then-Gov. Clinton spoke with Flowers, and the two discussed how to counter then-potential press disclosures that the two had an affair. Flowers secretly recorded the conversations and made the tapes public.

"Hillary said that she was four feet away from Bill when he was talking to Flowers," recalled one friend. "He [Clinton] was talking to Flowers on an extension from the kitchen in the governor's mansion. And Hillary was right there, standing right next to him."

The same friend recalled, "Hillary said, 'I was right there. I was standing right next to him. I know what they said to one another.'" But one of the friends familiar with the incident said that it was a good example of just how artful the president can be about deceiving those close to him: "He was talking to Flowers about how they could close down the speculation about their relationship. And he's also putting on a show for his wife as well. That speaks volumes about him."

Another individual close to the Clintons said that the first lady was able to deny to herself some of her husband's sexual misconduct because there indeed has been evidence that many of those making the allegations were seeking money and notoriety, and that conservative critics of the president were responsible for others.

During her deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, for example, Flowers admitted to receiving more than $500,000 as a result of making her allegations. She was not only paid by a tabloid newspaper, but also for writing a book about her relationship with Clinton, as well as for personal appearances.

And then there is the case of the four Arkansas state troopers who first made allegations to the American Spectator and the Los Angeles Times in December 1993 about sexual misconduct by Clinton while he was under their guard. One of the four has since repudiated the charges. Two of them later admitted to having a contractual and financial relationship with a conservative political organization with ties to the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

In addition, as Salon first
earlier this year, conservative
Chicago businessman Peter W. Smith spent $80,000 to finance an
investigation of the troopers' allegations and an effort to publicize
them. While many of the troopers' stories were exaggerated or fabricated, sources told Salon that the troopers' core allegation that they had facilitated extramarital relationships by then-Gov. Clinton was true.

Hillary Clinton has told confidants that she did not believe any of the troopers' allegations. According to what the first lady told friends, she believed that the troopers' stories first came to be circulated when one of the troopers was caught by his wife with the telephone number of a woman in his pocket while doing her husband's laundry. When the trooper's wife demanded an explanation, according to the first lady's version of the story, he falsely said that he had obtained the phone number for the governor. After the incident, Hillary Clinton told her friend, the stories began to circulate about the troopers assisting Clinton in meeting women.

Said the friend who was told the story: "You listen to the story and you know that it's not plausible. But you don't have the heart to say anything."

Another individual close to the first family says that the events of the last few days will not only lead the president to finally tell some hard truths about himself to the federal grand jury, and the country, but also to his own family: "There's a day of reckoning that is going to take place between a husband and his wife. The only difference between them and the rest of us is that they have to go through this in front of the entire world."

By Murray Waas

Murray Waas is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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