The Breakfast Table

The Office Pool

OK, I’ll play. But we have to have some stakes: what about a copy of the Progressive autographed by you under the sentence “David, you were right” if I am right? You choose your own forfeit if I get more than half of the following predictions wrong.

Predictions for the day …

On the dress: Your theory is clever, but maybe too clever. If this were an episode of Columbo, yes, absolutely, it would be a bluff. But my guess is that it’s real, and that it is stained. Let’s put it this way: would Clinton even consider confessing unless he were trapped dead to rights?

On the testimony: He can’t use the semantic defense. It won’t work. The people suggesting that he try to argue that the President never touched Monica are forgetting that the definition provided him by the Paula Jones attorneys applies equally if Monica touched the President; and it applies whether he was gratified or merely aroused. Remember, thanks to the Tripp tapes, they had a pretty good idea of the President’s proclivities when they framed their questions. So my guess: he confesses to lying in the Paula Jones matter and then refuses to answer any specific questions–and then hopes to heaven that Starr cannot prove any of the other major elements of the case: the collection of gifts, the authorship of the talking points, perjury in his account of the harassment of Kathleen Willey, or involvement in threats against Tripp and Willey.

The confession. I think it will be a masterpiece, a defining moment, Clinton at his most Clintonesque, the moment at which we are all forced to confront the shamelessness of the man, his ability to lie with almost inhuman effectiveness and lack of remorse. He will strike every note: anger at the importunate prosecutors who have wasted his time and ruined the life of the sad Miss Lewinsky; apologetic toward his wife and daughter (a tear here? No–unpresidential); defiant toward the Republicans in Congress (if this be treason, make the most of it!); insinuating toward the general public (I have always stood up for you; I have made my mistakes). And then–my guess–it will end with a carefully phrased invitation to the American public to let him know what it thinks of his actions; phrased so that if the messages run strongly in his favor, he can claim vindication, but so that he does not have to resign if they do not.

The upshot. I am unusual in this, but I think he’s finished. I’ve thought that since January. I think the endless reiteration of the two clips, one showing the passionate conviction of his “now you listen to me–I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky” the other showing the retraction will bring home to every citizen the President’s utter untrustworthiness. And I think, based on what I’ve seen and heard, that the story cannot in fact be neatly cauterized by confessing to masturbation games with Monica: that questions will remain about conspiracies to destroy evidence, about lies about assaulting Willey, about threats against women with damaging information about him. I think it will become apparent, in the weeks ahead, that while the president may have avoided perjuring himself in front of the grand jury today, that he once again failed to tell the full truth when asked for it. Will the Republicans impeach? I agree with you: this looks extremely unlikely. But what happens, I wonder, if the Democrats come to him and say: “Mr. President, the country is not mad at you-but it does not trust you either. You are in legal jeopardy. We think Al Gore can politically survive pardoning you for any and all offenses. Resign now. With a pardon in your pocket you need not fear indictment; and within 36 months everybody will feel a little sheepish and chagrined about the incident, allowing you to rebuild a successful life. But if you don’t resign, you’re a political hemophiliac–one nick, and you’ll bleed to death. And there are a lot of sharp edges in the vicinity.” Clinton is tough, tougher than Nixon, and would never take an offer like that unless he were in extreme danger. But he is in extreme danger, isn’t he?

Two special bonus prediction question to you: It’s 1:03 as I finish writing this; three minutes after the president’s testimony is scheduled to begin. At what point will we get the first authoritative leak? Six o’clock? Three? Earlier? And second, what will the overnight polls show about the reaction of women? He’s down to a 30% personal approval rating among married white women, the single group that was most crucial to his re-election in 1996. Do they rally? Or do they turn even further away?

I understand why you say you’re glad not to be in Washington; this is a day when we see our trade at its least high-minded. Still, if I didn’t have a book to finish by Labor Day, I’d be on the next plane back. That’s what pulled us into the profession in the first place, isn’t it? We’re too damn curious for our own good.

Hope it’s cool in Wisconsin; here it’s a perfect day–the wind rough, so I can listen to the surge and froth of the water as I work, and better still, blowing from the southwest, so I can smell the lake rather than the adjoining fields full of cows.