Flytrap Clearance Sale

Chatterbox can’t stand the pressure. Less than 72 hours to the historic first episode of To Tell the Truth ever to be televised from the White House. As Monica Mania heads for its Monday meltdown, dedicated print reporters everywhere are nervously checking their voice mail to see if any TV bookers called. (Chatterbox is proud to announce that he has already gotten the Big Call for on-air commentary on Monday–from an AM radio station in Canada). But journalists also face the dread knowledge that seven months of airy speculation about the president’s legal strategy will be trumped by reality on Monday. Signs of panic are everywhere. The normally restrained front-page “Washington Wire” column in today’s Wall Street Journal featured four separate Flytrap jokes. Use ‘em or lose ‘em.

As the clock ticks ominously, Chatterbox is also suffering pangs of publish or perish. So many carefully etched insights, so little time. With the remainder table beckoning, let’s get the show on the road:

The Kantor Connection: Who tipped off the New York Times that Bill Clinton is leaning toward his version of the Watergate strategy of a full modified hangout? The Times story this morning quoted “senior advisers” as saying that the president plans to admit sexual activity with Ms. Lewinsky, but would deny that these were “sexual relations” as defined in the Paula Jones law suit. How statesmanlike of the president to decide that it is better to be accused of being a pervert by the Christian Right than to be caught as a perjurer.

So who’s the primary high-level leaker? Chatterbox is convinced that all arrows point to Clinton’s behind-the-scenes legal adviser, Mickey Kantor. The biggest clue is that David Sanger, the Times’ international economics maven, was one of the four reporters who shared the byline. In the last six months, Sanger has written just one prior story on the legal maneuvering over Flytrap. But Sanger covered Kantor during the first term when the California politico served as Special Trade Representative and Commerce Secretary. And back in late January, Sanger profiled this “loyal, pugnacious lawyer with a highly attuned political ear” when Kantor returned to action on the Clinton defense team.

Beating the Rap: Why is everyone, including the Times, so eager to conclude that Monica’s ministrations took the form of oral sex? Sure, Lewinsky famously bragged that she was going “to get my presidential knee pads.” But that boast was made to Andrew Bleiler–Monica’s high school drama teacher and so much more–before Lewinsky ever got to the White House. What if the president, so reckless yet so careful, limited himself to activities of the more solo variety? After all, the tabloid Star this week claims that the obliging Monica stripped for the president and “Bill lost control when that little blue dress came off!” (For more of the tabloids’ take, see Emily Yoffe’s “Keeping Tabs” column.)

Okay, Chatterbox is getting a little overheated as he piles on conjectures from dubious sources. But it is all designed to set up a notion that Chatterbox first heard this week from a Democratic political operative with little lingering love for the president. If this icky story comes down to an M-word defense, wasn’t Clinton a hypocrite for firing Joycelyn Elders? The surgeon general’s sin was, after all, to publicly suggest that masturbation “is part of human sexuality and perhaps should be taught” in safe sex programs. Defending his decision to oust Elders, Clinton piously claimed “the president is entitled to have people in certain positions who agree with him.” Mr. President, exactly what positions were you talking about?

The Poll Perplex: Let’s see if Chatterbox has this right. Bill Clinton has an uncanny understanding of the nuances of the political mood of America. And according to the latest USA Today-CNN-Gallup Poll, only 26 percent of the nation would “lose confidence” in the president if he admitted having sex with Monica. If Americans are truly that forgiving of presidential hanky-panky, then why was there the need for such an elaborate White House coverup? Why didn’t Clinton just ‘fess up back in January and save us all this long ordeal?

Maybe the president, for all his legendary political savvy, is as baffled by these unexpected poll numbers as everyone else. Maybe Clinton has been masking his sexual encounters for so long that he didn’t notice that public attitudes have grown far more tolerant. Here’s a heretical idea: Perhaps Joycelyn Elders was instinctively more attuned to the sexual mood of the country. Chatterbox’s own theory, which may be shared by the president, is that all these poll results are a mirage. Until the American people actually hear the president confess that he grossly stretched the truth back in January with his denials of a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, no one can predict how this modified mea-culpa strategy will actually play with the voters.

Focus Group Grope: Chatterbox suspects that presidential pollster Mark Penn will be dispatching operatives this weekend to selected shopping malls to conduct focus groups to guide Clinton in any public apology. This is, after all, a president who has test marketed everything, even his banal re-election slogan about a “bridge to the 21st century.”

So, Chatterbox Irregulars, this is the moment to test the vaunted power of the Internet. Has any survey-taker offered you or your friends say, $50 to participate in a high-minded round-table discussion about what constitutes “sexual relations”? Or asked your feelings about what may have happened under that bridge to the 21st century? If so, by all means, share the moment with an e-mail to

Walter Shapiro