Free Willy!?!

Maybe it’s my attention span, but lately it seems news cycles have gotten dizzying. Watergate spun out slowly and luxuriously over two delicious years. Clinterngate, or Monicagate, or whatever you want to call it, is the biggest political story since, and the span between cocaine high and jaded withdrawal has lasted, at most, ten days. When Monica’s toothy grin first hit the newsstands, pundits were feverishly counting the days until the swearing-in of President Gore. The McLaughlin Group made bets on resignation or impeachment. One show had commentators weighing in on who Gore would pick as vice-president. Cartoonists were drawing Rorschach designs for the stains on Monica’s dress. One White House official told me, half jokingly, half desperately, that he was just about ready to “jump off the Calvert bridge.”

One week later, that same White House official is now cheerfully planning a long skiing vacation to Switzerland. The mood shift in Washington came at about the time everyone learned the dress had been dry-cleaned. For a moment, the White House could breathe a guilty sigh of relief. Then came Hillary’s icy performance on the Today show and Clinton’s very presidential State of the Union, and suddenly, there was daylight. By press time, news reporters had grown weary of being yelled at by White House interns who had served with Monica and could no longer safely answer their home phones. Talk shows were resorting to running stories about other guys who have slept with Monica. Nothing big has really changed, yet what seemed impossible only a week ago has come to pass: Clinton, for the moment, has wriggled his way out of this.

As a responsible journalist, I will insert the necessary caveats here. Obviously, Ken Starr could find some damning file on Clinton’s computer instructing Monica on how to lie. Or he could pull out a Secret Service guy’s nails one by one until he decides to talk. Or he could find a deep-throat White House staff member who witnessed some encounter between Bill and Monica. But my gut tells me that however this plays out, Clinton will slouch his way into the clear.

Already, the Clintonites have done an impressive job of stymieing their pursuers, both in Starr’s office and in the press. And they are furiously hatching more plans to preempt all possible attacks. The question is how exactly he’ll manage to save himself. Here, then, is a tour of the Machiavellian mind of our president, and my speculations on how, over the next few months, he will outsmart us all. The three “boxes” of his strategy, as Clinton likes to call them, will be Legalistic (by which the President and his Counselors will wear down his Enemies through Specious and Niggling Maneuvers); then Political (by which the First Lady and Others will paint their Enemies as Vicious Trolls); and, finally, a more fanciful scenario: Medical (by which the First Family, in the grand style of damaged Americans, will transform their Sins into Healthy Neuroses).

First, he’ll employ the legal attack. Hillary has been telling the press that her husband can’t say anything because he’s under investigation. This isn’t really true – he’s been under investigation for four years, and it doesn’t seem to have stopped him from talking until now – but the tactic is working. The press has parsed his one sentence about “sexual relations” so Talmudically that there’s nothing left to parse. By the State of the Union, we were so desperate for words, any words, that we were happy to hear him fill the void with chatter about Social Security, after-school child care, and the minimum wage.

In the future, the president will excuse himself from the press monster for “legal” reasons and speak directly to exuberant crowds in the heartland, as he did last week. In towns from Topeka to Kalamazoo, he’ll be met with marching bands, flag-waving fans, and cute, kissable babies. And most of the folks will say, as the ones interviewed in La Crosse, Wisconsin, last week said, that if it’s true, they think it’s disgusting, but they still love their president.

In the meantime, his lawyers will be busy chiseling away at Ken Starr behind the scenes. They will take issue with Starr for reportedly asking Lewinsky to wear a wire before asking Janet Reno for permission, for the highly unusual tactic of citing Clinton for criminal perjury in a civil case (one side always commits perjury in civil cases, since there are always two competing versions of the same story), and for cruelly issuing subpoenas to Lewinsky’s parents. (“Not even John Gotti’s mother got a subpoena,” says one White House attorney.) These arguments will probably not impress Janet Reno (who did eventually approve all of Starr’s maneuvers). But they may well be enough to convince the public that Starr is out of line. Legal niggling aside, it confounds common sense that public money is being spent to determine whom the president sleeps with (or doesn’t exactly “sleep” with). Starr will go on talk shows to explain that it’s technically within his jurisdiction to hound women in Arkansas to see if Clinton talked to them about Whitewater, but the heartland will wince. And they will understand that we are a long way from Watergate and Iran-contra, where a system of checks and balances was at stake.

Finally, the legal team will depend on its trump card: a motion to move up the date for the Paula Jones case. If the judge approves this seemingly obscure tactic, then Clinton will be scot-free. His lawyers have a much better case against Jones than they ever will against Lewinsky, with buckets of dirt on Jones’s sexual past, and six years of memory loss to dissect. Jones is the Ur-Accuser; if she falls, they all go away, and the president looks like the victim.

If the legal strategy fails, the Clintons will start the hardball politics and go after Linda Tripp and Lucianne Goldberg, maybe even Monica. They will connect these three to a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” as Hillary put it. They have already put into play the Vicious Trolls line. On a talk show last week, a mock-horrified Paul Begala spoke about how one of these people threatened to go after the president with a deer rifle (a loose translation of an off-color joke by Goldberg). White House aides are ready to knock the slats out from under one critical piece of evidence. Remember the talking points Linda Tripp said Monica Lewinsky gave her, the ones that advised her to say Kathleen Willey smeared her own lipstick? “Do you really think anyone, especially Vernon Jordan, would be dumb enough to write that down on paper?” asks one White House spokesman. He has a point. Why would the president, who already knew Tripp was out to get him, give her this ammunition? That leaves only one option: a vast right-wing conspiracy.

Now, anyone who has read five lines of the transcript of Monica Lewinsky talking knows that she is not part of, like, a right-wing conspiracy. As for Lucianne Goldberg, right-wing conspirators are not normally found on the Upper West Side slaving away at their next bodice-ripper. But the heartland will believe it because they want to. They are mad at the people who lodged in their brain the image of their president slobbering over an intern.

The ultimate goal of this two-pronged assault will be to extend the stalemate indefinitely, until reporters get tired of asking for White House logs and Ken Starr runs out of steam. But let’s say Starr comes up with a home run: a loose-lipped Secret Service agent or a blabbermouth staff member. Let’s say Starr then decides to go with the lame perjury charge and turns the tapes over to Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Clinton will probably still not get impeached, but the whole world will hear 40 hours of graphic girl talk about the “creep.”

And that will leave Clinton with only one option: Sexaholics Anonymous. Already a consensus is forming among his friends and enemies that the president needs help. “If it’s so, it represents a disorder,” said Pat Moynihan to the New York Post. “This is classic sex-addict behavior,” Arianna Huffington said on a talk show, “if you read the literature.” Even Clinton himself has admitted, somewhat obliquely, that he has a problem. “I think we are all addicted to something,” he was once quoted as saying in the Washington Post. “Some people are addicted to drugs. Some to power. Some to food. Some to sex. We’re all addicted to something.”

For three weeks, Clinton will check into the Santé Center for Healing in Argyle, Texas, where he will attend workshops and thumb through the literature for people like him. He could learn to recognize the symptoms (“severe consequences due to sexual behavior,” “inability to stop despite adverse consequences”). He might even come across a book by Dolly Kyle Browning, the high-school classmate who claims she had an affair with him. Kaye’s novel stars a man who suffers from sex addiction, and it comes with a handy ten-page insert instructing afflicted readers on how to get help. Or he might hear a lecture from Douglas Weiss, author of 101 Freedom Exercises for Sex Addiction Recovery, who claims to have counseled “political leaders from two countries.”

At the end of the visit, Clinton will hastily schedule another 60 Minutes interview, only this time by himself. With a sober expression, he will say to his fellow Americans: “I have had problems in the past, but today, I can honestly tell you, I am a new man.”

Free Willy!?!