Today's Papers

Erecting a Defense

The New York Times leads with a report, sourced to senior White House advisors, that President Clinton has discussed, but not finally committed to, a strategy of acknowledging to the grand jury on Monday that he’d had intimate sexual encounters with Monica Lewinsky. USA Today leads with a new poll, taken by the paper together with CNN, indicating that Americans want Clinton to tell the truth to the grand jury, even if it means making just such an admission. The Washington Post lead is that the Clinton administration has for months been secretly dissuading United Nations weapons teams from making surprise inspections in Iraq in order to avoid prompting a new crisis with Baghdad.

The NYT calls Clinton’s grand jury appearance “the most politically and legally perilous moment of his presidency,” and says he has been conducting practice sessions in which his lawyers are questioning him and designing answers that allow him to acknowledge a relationship with Lewinsky without going into graphic detail. Both the Times and the Wall Street Journal “Washington Wire” say that some advisors are suggesting Clinton afterwards make a public statement about his testimony.

According to the Times, the theory under which Clinton may now admit to sexual contact with Lewinsky is this: when he said in his Jones case deposition that he had never had sexual relations with Lewinsky, he was following the definition of sexual relations approved by the Jones trial judge–contact with any of a list of body parts (the paper quotes one Clinton advisor’s assessment of the definition: “cockamamie”)–but since the list of body parts doesn’t include the mouth, it doesn’t count oral sex as sexual relations. According to the NYT, the Clinton inner circle realizes the major political drawback of this line: reinforcing the notion of Clinton (in the NYT’s choice phrase) as “a lawyerly manipulator of language use to evade responsibility…technically truthful but not fundamentally honest.” Another bad reaction will come from women’s groups if they ever notice that according to the judge’s definition, Clinton is saying that he didn’t have sex with Monica, but she had sex with him.

As the NYT notes today, the Clinton administration’s public position advocating unconditional access inside Iraq for U.N. weapons inspectors has been palpably softening–to the point, where, in the words of the Times lead editorial, it’s as if the White House no longer cared about Iraq’s chemical, biological and nuclear status. But the Post lead is a bombshell because it shows inner details of the cave-in, including an August 4th phone call between Madeleine Albright and the U.N.’s top inspector, Richard Butler, in which Albright urged Butler to call off no-notice inspections at two sites thought to have forbidden weapons components and supporting documents. After a second such caution from Washington last Friday, says the Post, Butler canceled the inspections and ordered his people out of Baghdad.

The WP continues to report the story it broke yesterday, that investigators are looking for a missing assistant on a water truck thought to have been the bomb vehicle in the Dar-es-Salaam embassy bombing. The paper even identifies the man by name. As does the NYT, but the Times goes on to say that according to two American security officials, the water truck was being discounted as the bomb carrier–primarily because the truck was not obliterated in the blast. The paper says the security officials strongly suggest the missing assistant is not a suspect.

The WSJ runs a front-page feature on the continuing Russian economic crisis, and the story also gets play on the NYT and USAT’s “Money” section fronts. Russia’s plight, says the Journal, has become the Clinton administration’s main economic worry. Washington’s main concern, says the Journal, is that these fears will be picked up by investors in Brazil, Argentina and South Africa, precipitating further national crises that the IMF doesn’t have the money to assuage. And of course, there’s the underlying concern about Russia’s political stability.

The WSJ reports that the head of the NAACP is urging the Justice Dept. to look into whether banks are violating the Fair Housing Act in their acceptance of mortgage applications. The paper cites new data showing that the 1997 rejection rate for blacks is 53 percent, compared with 26 percent for whites. But the Journal should have noted that these aren’t the relevant figures because they aren’t liability-and-asset adjusted–what we need to know are the relative rejection rates for blacks and white of the same degree of loanworthiness.

Back to that Post lead for a moment: it features something “Today’s Papers” applauds and would like to see more of: a clear explanation of the motivations of the story’s unidentified sources: “officials who regarded the abandoned leads as the most promising in years and objected to what they described as the American role in squelching them.” (The NYT generally makes more of an effort in this direction than the WP, which usually opts for leaving it at “sources.”)