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United States: Media Frenzy Deepens Clinton Scandal

  • Sonia Winter

Washington, 27 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- There has never been anything in Washington like the sex scandal at the White House -- no facts have been established and no charges brought and yet in a frenzy of non-stop media coverage, multiplying allegations, and intensifying speculation have put President Bill Clinton's presidency at risk.

Since the news broke five days ago that Clinton supposedly had an affair three years ago with a 21-year-old intern at the White House and then urged her to lie about it to investigating authorities, the airwaves and newspapers and Internet in the U.S. have covered the story round the clock, to saturation point.

But it is almost all hearsay and allegation. Most of the instant analysis and comment and dire talk of possible presidential impeachment and resignation are speculative without provable grounds.

And lying, that is perjury, would be the only grounds for any kind of criminal charge against Clinton or Monica Lewinsky, the woman he was supposedly involved with.

But no one knows for sure what was said or what happened outside Clinton and his lawyers and the investigating independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr and they so far have said very little.

Starr is prohibited by law from publicly commenting on a case that is still in the investigative stages.

President Clinton said again today, forcefully and trembling with emotion, that he had no sexual relations with Lewinsky, that he never urged her or anyone else to lie and that the allegations are false.

Lewinsky also denied it in a sworn affidavit more than a week ago. But her lawyer is now negotiating with Starr about possible new testimony.

The lawyer, William Ginsburg, told reporters Sunday that he is asking for immunity from prosecution for Lewinsky in return for any information she may provide. He said the bargaining has bogged down for the moment because Starr is refusing guarantees until he knows what Lewinsky will say and whether it will be useful to his case against the President.

Meanwhile, latest opinion polls conducted separately by major newspapers and television networks show most Americans believe Clinton should resign if he is found to have lied in sworn testimony or urged others to perjury.

At the same time, about half a dozen polls suggest that a majority of Americans approve of the job he is doing as president. Clinton's job approval ratings dropped initially but are now rebounding, according to the pollsters.

Washington analysts say the poll results indicate the public is more concerned with trust than with Clinton's bedroom practices. But there have been unanswered questions about his personal behavior and truthfulness ever since he began running for president more than six years ago.

Robert Dallek, a historian and biographer for former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, says that what makes this different is that "a sitting president is under scrutiny for violating the moral code for seducing a 21-year-old kid."

His statement illustrates the other, equally if not more important aspect of the case -- Dallek does not know Clinton had such an affair, neither does the American public nor hundreds of reporters and journalists. But they are all talking and writing about it almost 24 hours a day.

A summary of the actual known facts is quite brief. Starr has in his possession tapes of many hours of conversations between Lewinsky and a woman friend Linda Tripp, another former White House employee. Tripp secretly taped confidential conversations with Lewinsky without her knowledge.

Several reporters say they have heard excerpts of the tapes and that what Lewinsky says on the tapes contradicts what she said in her sworn affidavit. They say she describes sexual encounters with Clinton. If true, that would make her guilty of perjury.

Clinton cannot be prosecuted for having an affair, but if he urged Lewinsky to commit perjury than he too could be in violation of the law. But so far, no one has come forward, to corroborate the rumors that Clinton urged Lewinsky to lie.

Neither has anyone come forward to corroborate the allegations that Clinton had an affair and that he lied to the American people. There is talk of possible witnesses at the White House but no identification yet from reliable sources.

If the rumors prove to be true, it is unknown so far what the procedure could be. Penalties for perjury in a civil case are lighter than in a criminal case.

Some constitutional experts say no criminal charges can be brought against a sitting president and that he can only be impeached by the U.S. Congress.

The alternative would be for Clinton to resign voluntarily as former President Richard Nixon did in 1974. But the White House has said that is not an option, that Clinton will not resign and that the allegations will prove to be false.