I have been sick at heart since first reading my Drudge flash early Sunday morning: the president and an intern.
I thought: How can I keep defending Drudge if he’s wrong about all this? I thought: How can I keep defending Clinton if Drudge is right about all this?
Here is what I want to say: The charges that are being reported, if true, are serious. People’s lives are on the line. Before we determine punishment, we adjudicate guilt. Before we convict, we presume innocence. I don’t know if the president had an affair with an intern and then told her to deny it, or if he sent Vernon Jordan to deliver the advice. I prefer to think that he didn’t and wouldn’t. It is too sad all around.
But I’m a lawyer, and that’s not how I think at all. I think about the “what ifs,” and the “how abouts,” and that’s when I get sick at heart.
What if it’s true? Could it be true?
The journalism-school questions are, comparably, the easy stuff: How come Newsweek killed investigative reporter Michael Isikoff’s story? How come Drudge was the only one reporting this? If the evidence was good enough for the three-judge panel to approve an expansion of Starr’s authority, how come it wasn’t good enough for Newsweek? Did Newsweek apply a higher standard than the judges? Who is right? Did we have a right to know what Cokie and Sam and George and Bill were talking about Sunday morning, what all Washington must be talking about now?
Now you’re stuck. Did Drudge perform a useful function on this one, or should we have waited for the leaks from Starr’s office to give us the full picture? Is this the perfect case to prove why we need Drudge–I mean, the president having an affair, allegedly; screaming battles at Newsweek, allegedly; tape-recorded conversations; three-judge courts; applications to the attorney general; and no one is telling me about it.
I asked my students in class yesterday if they were more interested in Netanyahu’s White House meeting or the president’s alleged affair with an intern. Guess what the answer was? Which newscast would you watch, I asked, the one that leads with the intern or with Madeleine Albright?
Of course, so what. They’ll all be leading with the intern tonight. Drudge is just a few days earlier.
The law-school stuff is harder. Perjury is always the vise. Here’s how it works. You said x before–say, on tape to a close friend. Now, if the same questions are posed again–under oath–and you say something different, the earlier statement–hearsay though it may be–is always admissible as a prior inconsistent statement. Do you repeat what you said before? Or do you say something different and risk a perjury conviction? This is how a civil suit becomes a criminal case. This is why the most important advice is always to shut up. It’s no crime to tell someone to lie about a relationship–people do it every day–but it is if they’re being deposed in a civil suit. If you knew your client was fooling around but could never afford to admit it, you would never let a civil suit hang out there with the potential to turn his denials, and those of others, into obstruction of justice and conspiracy, instead of chivalry or whatever (no, not chivalry, maybe Henry Cisneros is chivalry … but not an intern). And if you have a special prosecutor on duty, desperate for a score; and a grand jury to call witnesses in front of … give them the choice of contradicting themselves or explaining why they said something so completely different before or perjuring themselves. … Of course, the witness could take the Fifth Amendment on the theory that she might have already lied under oath, but then you just offer immunity, which the woman who recorded the conversation supposedly already has. Then your only choice is to answer the question or go to jail for contempt (shades of Susan McDougal). The problem the president faces on this one is not Matt Drudge but Ken Starr.
I see the jokes coming. Tell the national security adviser I’m too busy to hear about the war in the Middle East, I’m meeting with one of the interns. … Helluvan internship program. … Nightly briefings with the president. … When they promise an in-depth look. Are people laughing?
When I came to Washington 25 years ago, it was common for senators to have affairs with interns; swim parties, that sort of thing. I heard about it all the time and saw enough to believe it. But it was also the case that nothing untoward ever happened to me or my friends. I took that as proof of the old maxim that if you weren’t asking for it, you didn’t get it, and if you were, you shouldn’t complain about it. I asked to be taken seriously and I was. If others were asking for something else, so be it. Live and let live. When I was a muffin-shop waitress in high school, the guy who ran the place used to have sex downstairs in the storeroom with the other waitress while I served, cooked, and ran the cash register. He asked me too, but I said I preferred to work; I needed the tips, and I thought he was creepy.
No one held a gun to anyone’s head and demanded that they go into the president’s study–if anyone did go there. When I was 21, I thought I had autonomy. I thought I was a grown-up, deciding for myself. Was I wrong? In law school, one of my classmates had an affair with her professor. She felt privileged and selected and special, and she confided in me, who didn’t have him and didn’t see it. Power is an amazing aphrodisiac. She thought he was sexy. She thought she was making her own judgment. I thought he was wrong for asking. Who could say no in that situation? What 21-year-old intern could resist the president of the United States?
It will be said that this isn’t about sex at all. It’s about lying and obstruction and all that. It’s Gary Hart; it’s arrogance and hubris; it’s death-wish time … or alleged death-wish time. But that’s not entirely true. Gary Hart only lied about sex. The president certainly doesn’t have a death wish about foreign policy; he’s been effective on the balanced budget; he hires women for high office; he appointed Madeleine–and listens to her.
It’s about sex.
Should allegedly finding comfort, release, satisfaction, peace in the arms of a beautiful 21-year-old count for more than balancing the budget?
My daughter is closer to 21 than I am.
Say it ain’t so, Joe.