A Day in the Life of a Scandal

A Day in the Life of a Scandal

At the White House, the storm began to gather on Saturday. Clinton aides picked up hints that reporters were tracking another one of "Bill Clinton's women." It was someone who had emerged in the Paula Jones lawsuit and, as it finally came out, someone who had once worked at the White House.

The buzz grew all weekend: Reporters were on the hunt, calling the White House about something Newsweek was investigating. By the night of Tuesday, Jan. 20, the President's press office was on alert. Staff members all over the White House were getting calls from reporters about Monica Lewinsky. "They wanted to know, `Did you know her?' " said one aide. "The story had been floating for three days on the Internet. It was just a matter of time before it made its way into print. You don't know just how, but it always does."

That night, before Clinton gave a 28-minute speech about his presidential agenda to a fund-raising gathering across the street from the White House, Clinton's personal lawyer, David E. Kendall, told the President what he knew of the allegations.

White House aides knew a major story was about to break in The Washington Post, but the details were still sketchy. As the President returned to the White House shortly after 9:30 P.M. to meet for the second time that day with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, some of Clinton's damage-controllers, special counsels Lanny J. Davis and Lanny Breuer and deputy chief of staff John Podesta, prepared for the deluge. White House press secretary Michael D. McCurry and others looked for the story in the Post's 11:30 P.M. edition, but it wasn't there. They had to wait another hour. "We read it and figured, OK, now we know what we're dealing with," McCurry said.

As dawn broke on Wednesday, senior White House officials and the communications staff braced themselves for "a feeding frenzy like you've never seen before," said one aide.

At the 7:45 A.M. senior staff meeting in the Roosevelt Room, chief of staff Erskine B. Bowles made an oblique reference to the Lewinsky story, admonishing everyone to focus on preparations for the State of the Union speech and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat's meeting with the President on Thursday. At the regular 8:15 A.M. communications meeting, McCurry, Podesta and others discussed the run-up to the State of the Union speech. But it was clear to everyone in the room that for days, and perhaps longer, their influence over the headlines would be nil.

At 8:45 A.M., members of the campaign finance damage control team were assembling in Podesta's office for a previously scheduled meeting to discuss a House oversight hearing later that day. According to one Clinton aide at the meeting, White House counsel Charles F. Ruff came in to tell everyone the Lewinsky matter would not be in their portfolio, and quickly left. "Ruff's take on it was, this is an independent-counsel thing," said the aide. Translation: It was not official White House business. "This is very compartmentalized," said one White House lawyer.

At 10 A.M., Ruff met with Clinton lawyer Robert S. Bennett, Breuer, Kendall and others. Kendall would spend much of the day at the White House, meeting with senior Clinton advisers.

Around the corner in the Oval Office, Clinton arrived from the residence at 8:30 A.M. to get his national security briefing. He was already scheduled to give three interviews in the afternoon to talk about the State of the Union speech and world affairs, but he knew he would have to answer questions about allegations that he had had a sexual affair with a White House intern and later encouraged her to deny it. After the briefing, he talked with Kendall and Ruff about what he would say.

Clinton also met with his foreign policy team on Iraq. The President--"amazingly," according to one aide--kept to a regular schedule.

Around the hallways, White House aides performed their regular duties but talked among themselves about whether they remembered Lewinsky and whether the allegations could be true. Many aides were somber and tense, watching the latest on television and waiting to see what the President would do.

"If you've been here for three weeks, it's crushing," said one aide. "If you've been here since Gennifer Flowers and the [independent counsel Kenneth W.] Starr stuff, you say, 'OK, I've seen this before.' You just ride it out."

But some of the bravado that Clinton's team had displayed on other roller-coaster rides was missing. "In order of magnitude, it is more serious than most things we deal with," McCurry said. "You have to treat it seriously." And he said it packed more sting because many thought the scandal days might be over: "I think most of us thought this was in the past," he said. "We were looking ahead, to State of the Union and other things."

For Clinton counselor Paul E. Begala, who helped manage the President's 1992 campaign, the Lewinsky story was deja vu. "It was six years ago this week that we were dealing with Gennifer Flowers," Begala said, shaking his head at the memory. Asked whether the latest allegations were true, Begala raised both his hands. "I don't know," he said. "The President denied it."

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