The Consortium

Clinton's 'Rope-a-Dope' Disaster

By Robert Parry

For five years, President Clinton has been a walking target of opportunity. From the moment he set foot in the White House ending 12 years of Republican rule, he has been beset by an extraordinary number of "scandals." Some, such as his Whitewater land deal, contained some reality and significance. Others, such as the Travel Office affair and Vincent Foster's "murder," were wildly exaggerated or even fabricated by his political enemies.

But equally extraordinary has been Clinton's reaction to the "scandals." Unlike Richard Nixon who ruminated over his "enemies lists" or Ronald Reagan and George Bush who surrounded themselves with aggressive "public diplomacy" teams to destroy critics, Clinton has chosen, again and again, to play a mostly passive defense while pressing ahead with his policy agenda.

Some presidential advisers have dubbed Clinton's scandal response a political form of "rope-a-dope," the strategy Muhammad Ali made famous in his 1974 heavyweight title fight against George Foreman in which a tired Ali retreated to the ropes and let Foreman wear himself out by flailing away.

For five years, Clinton has chosen to absorb the political blows, rather than to direct a sustained offensive against the conservatives. He has been content to counter-punch and to wait for the conservatives to damage themselves. Even faced with legitimate targets of Republican vulnerability -- including real scandals of the Reagan-Bush era, from the 1980 October Surprise affair through contra cocaine trafficking to the Iraqgate arming of Saddam Hussein -- Clinton has turned a blind eye.

Clinton's backers credited this tolerant approach for allowing Clinton to stay focused on the economy and helping him win re-election in 1996. But it now appears Clinton may have stretched his luck one "scandal" too far.

With the latest political haymaker over an alleged affair with ex-White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Clinton seems to have encountered the limits of his political "rope-a-dope" strategy. If the allegations prove true, Clinton could be facing a TKO -- a political demise that can be blamed jointly on his own personal weaknesses and his enemies on the Right.

Clearly, the president has been political staggered. Tape recordings of Lewinsky, supposedly describing the affair to a Pentagon co-worker, have received saturation coverage by the news media and have spurred demands for Clinton's ouster. The tapes quickly gained wide credibility with the press and public, in part because of Clinton's long-standing reputation for philandering and distrust over his past disingenuous explanations.

Clinton Enemies

Without doubt, the charges raise serious moral and legal questions about Clinton. Having sex with a female intern smacked of an abuse of his authority as well as an egregious lapse of judgment. Plus, since both the president and the 24-year-old Lewinsky have denied the allegations in sworn statements in the Paula Jones case, the tapes raised the possibility of a criminal obstruction of justice.

Clinton would be guilty, too, of a gross political error. An alleged one-and-half-year affair -- starting in late 1995 -- would have meant that the president was jeopardizing his re-election if the affair had been revealed in 1996. And he was inviting comparisons to the Paula Jones case which was filed in 1994, alleging Clinton's sexual misconduct toward Jones when Clinton was governor of Arkansas and Jones was a low-level state employee.

But there was a political "dirty tricks" component to the new disclosures, as well. The new scandal would not have occurred if not for the machinations of Clinton's political enemies, who have spared little effort to destroy the president over the five years. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who has been pursuing Clinton on a variety of issues for three and a half years, was picked for the job by a three-judge panel headed by U.S. Appeals Court Judge David Sentelle, a protege of ultra-conservative Sen. Jesse Helms.

Starr himself is a conservative political figure with powerful conflicts of interest. His future career rests on his success in bringing down Clinton and pleasing some of the Right's chief benefactors, such as Richard Mellon Scaife who subsidizes a legal program at Pepperdine University where Starr is expected to work after he completes his post as special prosecutor.

Though little noticed in the media frenzy over the Lewinsky tapes, the current scandal had other Clinton enemies in key places. Indeed, a New York literary agent, Lucianne Goldberg, instigated the tape recordings, in part, to advance her admitted agenda of destroying Clinton. Goldberg's checkered past included dirty tricks for Richard Nixon's notorious 1972 re-election campaign. She posed as a reporter on Sen. George McGovern's campaign plane and sold the political intelligence to Murray Chotiner, a close Nixon political adviser.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Goldberg made no secret about her hope that the tapes would "get" the president and make her a "hero." Goldberg even suggested that her contempt for Clinton and his team bordered on the violent. She told the Post that if Clinton's lawyer William Bennett had maligned her credibility the way he had Linda Tripp's, "I'd be on the lawn of the White House with a deer rifle."

According to accounts in The New York Times and the Post, it was Goldberg who persuaded her friend, Linda Tripp, to tape personal conversations with Lewinsky. In the midst of recording more than 20 hours of Lewinsky's anguished phone calls, Tripp handed two of the tapes to Goldberg.

The book agent then brought the information to the attention of Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, who had been an early journalistic supporter of the Paula Jones case. According to the Post account, Goldberg then accompanied Tripp to a meeting last fall with Isikoff in Washington and offered to let him listen to one of the tapes.

The Trap Closes

Word about Lewinsky's alleged affair with Clinton was leaked to lawyers for Paula Jones as well, although it's still not clear exactly how. The news was valuable to the Jones case which appeared to be floundering, after her previous team of lawyers quit in a dispute with their client last September. Jones was allying herself increasingly with ideological right-wingers determined to destroy Clinton's presidency.

Armed with the new information about Lewinsky, Jones's new legal team issued a subpoena for the young woman. That touched off her panicked call to Clinton for advice. The president reportedly told her to deny any affair and referred her to his longtime friend, attorney Vernon Jordan.

Jordan told the news media later that Lewinsky informed him that she had no sexual relationship with the president. Lewinsky formally issued that denial in an affidavit that she filed in the Jones case. But already, the scandal trap was closing. Tripp had approached Starr's investigators and gave them the secretly recorded phone tapes.

On Jan. 13 and 16, Tripp arranged additional conversations with Lewinsky at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Pentagon City, a section of Arlington near the Pentagon. At these meetings, however, Tripp wore a body-wire supplied by Starr's office. At the second meeting, FBI agents and federal prosecutors swooped in on Lewinsky. They took her upstairs to a hotel suite where they sought to enlist her in a sting operation, apparently against Clinton and Jordan. After discussions that lasted 10 hours, Lewinsky refused to cooperate.

The next day, Jan. 17, Clinton was deposed for six hours and reportedly denied an affair with Lewinsky. That evening, Jones and her lawyers were seen popping champagne corks and celebrating at the Old Ebbitt Grill restaurant near the White House.

Also that night, partly in deference to Starr's expanding investigation, Newsweek editors held Isikoff's story about the new developments implicating Clinton in a new sex scandal. The story broke with full force, however, on Tuesday morning, Jan. 20, with The Washington Post's banner lead. Within hours, the capital was swept by speculation about Clinton's possible resignation or impeachment.

Who is Monica Lewinsky?

The future course of the scandal likely will depend on the decisions of Monica Lewinsky, whether she sticks by her affidavit denying an affair or accepts a deal from Starr who wants her to implicate Clinton in an obstruction of justice. If she follows the second course, her credibility and potential corroborating evidence of an affair will take center stage.

In the first several days of the scandal, Lewinsky was an enigma, hiding out at her mother's Watergate apartment. Her sketchy biography showed that she grew up in wealthy Los Angeles neighborhoods, including Beverly Hills -- 90210. Her father was a wealthy doctor and her mother was a reporter fascinated by the private lives of the rich and famous. An admitted soap opera devotee, Lewinsky attended a junior college in Santa Monica before finishing her undergraduate studies at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon.

Lewinsky's road to a White House internship was paved by a family friend, a wealthy New York insurance executive, Walter Kaye, who is a major Democratic party donor. Kaye knew Lewinsky's mother, Marcia Lewis, who had moved to New York after divorcing Monica's father.

Lewis wrote the 1996 book, "The Private Lives of the Three Tenors: Behind the Scenes With Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras." The book contains juicy tidbits about the singers' personal lives and suggests that the author had an affair with Domingo, a rumor which Lewis coyly denies in publicity releases.

In interviews with Clinton loyalists about Lewinsky, I was told the young woman had a tendency to exaggerate and fantasize. But clearly she had maneuvered herself from an obscure intern's job to a congressional liaison position and into a friendship with the president. Alarmed at what some White House aides thought was an excessive interest in Clinton, senior presidential advisers transferred her to a public relations job at the Pentagon.

That is where she met Linda Tripp, who had been a holdover from the Bush White House and had played bits roles in several Clinton controversies. She had worked for White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum and Nussbaum's deputy, the late Vincent Foster. Tripp was the assistant who had brought Foster lunch on the July 20, 1993, the day Foster killed himself.

In e-mails that later surfaced, Tripp ridiculed Nussbaum and other White House lawyers as the "three Stooges" for their handling of Foster's documents after his death. She also claimed to have seen another woman leave an encounter with Clinton with her lip stick smudged, the claim that brought Bennett's criticism of her credibility.

Having lost the confidence of her superiors, Tripp transferred to the Pentagon where she met and befriended Lewinsky. Though twice Lewinsky's age (Tripp is 48 and Lewinsky 24), Tripp became a confidante for Lewinsky's rambling about her alleged affair with Clinton.

The snippets of the taped conversations which were released by Newsweek showed Lewinsky to be a salty-tongued young woman who spoke about Clinton in highly derogatory terms, such as "the creep" and "Schmucko." Her credibility has other problems. She reportedly states on one tape, "I have lied my entire life."

As the scandal plays out, Lewinsky's credibility and possible corroborating evidence could prove crucial to the fate of the Clinton Presidency. But President Clinton might belatedly be discovering, too, that there are limits to his five-year-long strategy of playing political "rope-a-dope." ~

(c) Copyright 1998 -- Please Do Not Re-Post

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