Do You Have Any Interns in That Basket?

The press seems to have largely bought the idea that Clinton’s personal secretary Betty Currie has strongly denied the New York Times story of Feb. 6, which suggested that Clinton had called Currie into work on a Sunday to help shape her potential testimony about Monica Lewinsky. The Minneapolis Star Tribune, for example, said that Currie’s lawyer had issued “a strongly worded statement saying his client was in no way coached by Clinton to provide misleading testimony.” The Boston Globe repeated the “not coached” formula. On CNN, Jeff Greenfield suggested that the statement of Currie’s lawyer was the sort of categorical denial that Clinton himself should make.

Wait a minute! Let’s take another look at exactly what Currie’s lawyer said:

“I want to be absolutely clear, to the extent there is any implication or the slightest suggestion that Mrs. Currie believes that the President or anyone else tried to influence her recollection, that is absolutely false and a mischaracterization of the facts. I am shocked and dismayed by the numerous leaks regarding Mrs. Currie’s grand jury testimony.”

Can you spot the Clintonistic fudge in that paragraph? That’s right, the key word is “recollection.” Currie isn’t really denying that Clinton was trying to coach her. She just denies that he was trying to change her recollection. Of course he wasn’t. Currie presumably recalls perfectly well where she was when Clinton was with Monica in the Oval Office. She was in her office next door, most likely. Clinton’s not trying to get her to think she was somewhere else. But, as has been widely speculated, he could have been trying to get her to testify that Lewinsky wasn’t “alone” with him because Currie was within “shouting distance.” In other words, he was merely schooling her in the special Clintonian definition of “alone,” as in “I was never alone in a hotel with her.”

Since the statement of Currie’s lawyer was drafted at the request of Clinton’s lawyers, you can bet each word was carefully weighed and vetted. If Currie had really been denying Clinton tried to influence her testimony, she would have said Clinton didn’t try to influence her testimony, not her “recollection.”

The Currie statement offers a good example of a major species of Clinton weasel: The strong denial of something weak. Clinton’s lawyers hope you will be so snowed by the phrases “absolutely” and “slightest suggestion” that you won’t notice that what is being “absolutely” denied isn’t all that much.

The only other statement released by Currie’s lawyer contains a subtler Clintonism: Currie is not “aware of any legal or ethical impropriety by anyone.” But of course she might not be “aware” that a semantic discussion on what is meant by “alone” was improper. After Currie’s lawyer issued this statement, Clinton himself employed the Strong/Weak trick to great effect, saying he was “pleased that Ms. Currie’s lawyers stated unambiguously this morning–unambiguously–that she’s not aware of any unethical conduct.”

Clinton’s answers in the Flytrap scandal remind Chatterbox of nothing so much as an old routine by the British comedy group Beyond the Fringe, parodying Bertrand Russell’s televised reminiscences. In the sketch, Russell confronts his neighbor, the philosopher G.E. Moore, who is sitting by the fire with a basket on his knee. “Moore, do you have any apples in that basket,” asks Russell. “No,” replies Moore. “Moore, do you then have some apples in that basket?” asks Russell. “No,” replies Moore. Russell’s final lines:

“‘Moore,’ I said, ‘do you then have apples in that basket?’ ‘Yes,’ he replied, and from that day forth we remained the very closest of friends.”

HYPED STORY OF THE WEEK: That would be Time magazine’s account of the testimony of Julie Steele, erstwhile friend of Kathleen Willey. “Now, another key witness could end up doing [Paula] Jones more harm than good,” report Jay Branegan and Viveca Novak in Monday’s issue. They note that Jones had hoped to use Willey’s tale that Clinton had made an unwelcome advance in 1993. “But sources tell Time that Julie Hiatt Steele, once a close friend of Willey’s, signed an affidavit last Friday, at the request of Clinton’s lawyers, suggesting that the encounter may have been more innocent than Willey claims and that Willey asked her to lie about it.” Time then dramatically recounts how Steele says she was called by Willey and asked to lie even as Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff “was on his way to Steele’s house.”

Sounds important, and Time’s readers could be forgiven for getting the impression that the magazine had discovered something new. Trouble is, Steele’s recantation, and the accusation against Willey, was not new at all. It was reported last August in Isikoff’s original Newsweek story on Willey. The whole saga, including the dramatic call while Isikoff was in transit, was also reported in the New York Times two weeks ago, on Jan. 31. (See Chatterbox for Feb. 3.) The only new element in the Time story was that Steele has now signed an affidavit saying what everyone thought she would say since last August…. Plus Steele’s lawyer (and Time) fudge on the not insignificant question of whether Willey has consistently said that Clinton made a pass–wanted or unwanted–at her. Time reports that Steele was “left with the impression that there was nothing more than ‘mutual affection,’” …

CONFLICT OF INTEREST DISCLOSURE: Chatterbox was blown off recently when it sought employment at Time …. The bitter ravings of a disgruntled reject, or trenchant media analysis? You, the reader, make the call! …. For its part, Chatterbox absolutely and unambiguously denies any implication or the slightest suggestion that it was aware that any part of this item was solely influenced by any lack of mutual affection with Time. It goes without saying that Chatterbox is also shocked and dismayed.