As Dan Rather demonstrated when he interviewed the President on 60 Minutes II, the Clinton legacy will always be bedeviled by the blue dress. The news media sacrificed their dignity over it, and Ken Starr his future. Every 10-year-old who ever steps into the Clinton library will torture the curators there over it, causing a great deal more pain than we did when we called the drugstore and asked if they had Prince Albert in a can. Then, someday, the dress will surely sell for a gazillion dollars and hang limp, proud and faded–our generation’s emblem, our bullet-ridden Old Glory at Fort McHenry.
But when you actually think about what the dress means, it means very little: a moment of stolen pleasure, constrained by a dubious setting (the Oval Office), and that moment interrupted, then held onto rather meanly.
I’m more interested in another dirty shmatte that slipped from Monica’s hand: the “Talking Points” memo that, three years ago, the former White House intern gave to her onetime friend, Linda Tripp. The memo instructed Ms. Tripp how to perjure herself and smear the reputation of other women in connection with the Paula Jones lawsuit, and it is a true reflection of Clinton’s legacy, his sense of accountability–use legalistic tactics to destroy people.
But when I called the President’s lawyer, Robert Bennett, the other day to ask him about the Talking Points, he asked me to remind him what they said. I don’t think he really forgets what they said. But he could get away with it because just about everyone else has.
Don Foster, the Shakespeare scholar who moonlights as a text detective, recently published Author Unknown (Henry Holt), which chronicles his unmasking of anonymous authors, notably Shakespeare and Joe Klein. Mr. Foster has a chapter on the Talking Points–the only inconclusive chapter in his book–and I visited him at his home near Vassar College.
Mr. Foster was seated on a couch by the fire, surrounded by student papers and letters that are evidence in a Midwestern murder case a defense attorney has sought his help with. A small, trim man with gleaming eyes, he said he had to rush off to his first love–class–in an hour.
“I never used to hear from students that I talked too fast,” he said, speaking rapidly. “Now I hear it regularly. All this [text analysis] has made life more stressful and complicated. I’ve even gotten a little neurotic about not wanting to turn on my computer, because there are 75 new messages a day.”
I remembered how stressed out the professor was for the three months during which Joe Klein had denied Mr. Foster’s assertion that he had written Primary Colors . Mr. Foster saw Mr. Klein’s fingerprints all over the writing. But he had to respect Mr. Klein’s denial, and he tried to come up with ideas of co-authorship that would make both of them right. In the end, Mr. Klein came forward.
Mr. Foster got into textual sleuthing largely as a public service, he says, never taking fees from the F.B.I. or other lawyers. “I’ve tried to be a good citizen.” So many people pressed him for his opinion on the Talking Points that he decided to explore them in his book.
Three years ago, the Talking Points seemed like the smoking gun of the Clinton scandals. They were a three-page, step-by-step instruction Monica Lewinsky gave former White House secretary Linda Tripp about how to be a Team Clinton player and lie in an affidavit she would present in the Paula Jones case. The memo dealt specifically with a meeting the President had had with Kathleen Willey, whom he did or didn’t maul. When the special prosecutor began breathing down Monica Lewinsky’s neck to learn the origin of the document, her lawyer, Nathaniel Speights, called Mr. Foster.
Mr. Speights said Linda Tripp had come up with the Talking Points. Mr. Foster responded crisply that he didn’t believe that.
“The ideas,” Mr. Speights explained.
And Monica Lewinsky, who was sitting by the phone on the other end, said, “‘Huge’ is like one of [her] favorite words. She was always saying ‘huge’ this [and] ‘huge’ that.”
Monica was referring to a line in the Talking Points that characterizes Monica herself as a “huge liar.”
Mr. Foster didn’t end up working for Ms. Lewinsky, and in fall 1998 he was as stunned as anyone, after Congress published the Starr report, by its numbing exploration of people’s sex lives. The Talking Points had been forgotten.
Mr. Starr seemed to accept at face value Ms. Lewinsky’s assertion that she had prepared the Talking Points. This is, as Mr. Foster shows, preposterous. The backbone of the document is sharp legal instruction that is simply not Monica’s voice. Mr. Foster offers evidence that Ms. Lewinsky filtered the counsel through her own word processor, altering portions of the piece and adding her own guidance for Ms. Tripp, but the central advice is so crafty and pointed that it would likely have originated from someone with a tactical approach to the Paula Jones case.
For instance, it cleverly advises Ms. Tripp to state that “Kathleen and I were friends”–referring to Kathleen Willey–before destroying Ms. Willey’s credibility: “I now do not believe that what she claimed happened really happened. I now find it completely plausible that she herself smeared her lipstick, untucked her blouse, etc.”
And the document very shrewdly advises Ms. Tripp to cast aside any suggestion of neutrality, so that Mr. Starr will regard her as a member of the Clinton “team.”
“Whose speaking position was being represented there?” Mr. Foster muses. “Not Monica’s but the President’s interests. And that greatly reduces the suspects.”
Mr. Foster doesn’t exempt Bill Clinton himself from authorship. He even points out that a slip of the tongue in the points was the same slip that President Clinton committed in testimony he gave about the same time (confusing the words “affidavit” and “deposition”). But he’s more focused on Clinton’s lawyers.
First, there is Vernon Jordan. Mr. Foster doesn’t find textual parallels in a large sample of Mr. Jordan’s writings. But he finds it curious that Ms. Lewinsky protested Mr. Jordan’s innocence at great length in her own testimony–so much so that he wonders whether the lawyer didn’t have some role in the matter, perhaps in handing off a diskette to her.
“Vernon Jordan had tried to find her a job, and then she had gotten Jordan jammed up and made the object of Starr’s inquiry when she was recorded [by Linda Tripp, on the phone] as saying that he advised her to lie. I think there was some feeling on Monica’s part of responsibility, of Vernon Jordan being ill paid for his efforts on her behalf.”
Mr. Foster moves on to deputy White House counsel Bruce Lindsey, who I suggested two years ago was the author. Mr. Foster thinks I’m probably wrong, but he’s not sure.
He raises an eyebrow over Mr. Lindsey’s snappy answers before the Starr grand jury saying he had nothing to do with the document–five West Point-like no sir s “uttered in rapid-fire succession” seem overmuch to him. And he pounces on an aside by Mr. Lindsey that he was “more familiar” with the first page of the document. Why would he be more familiar? Was he shown that page?
“He seems to be a little touchy on what he might know or not have known about the origin and transmission of the text,” Mr. Foster says. “If it was initiated by the President’s own personal attorney in the Paula Jones lawsuit, it’s a little naïve to think that no one in the White House was advised.”
This brings us to Mr. Foster’s “No. 1″ suspect, Robert Bennett. Mr. Foster has identified a number of small lexical echoes between the Talking Points and Mr. Bennett’s writings. But the point of view of the document often seems close to Mr. Bennett’s. For instance, the Talking Points warn Ms. Tripp not to contradict Mr. Clinton on the Willey incident. Actually, Mr. Foster notes, the only person she’d be in danger of contradicting was Mr. Bennett, who had commented publicly on the assertions, dismissing them. Mr. Clinton had been silent.
These coincidences, Mr. Foster concedes, “would never meet the standard of admissibility in court”–where Mr. Foster has often given testimony. “But at an investigative level, they are worth pursuing. If I could have had a writing sample, I’d like one from Robert Bennett. He’d be the first person I’d ask for one.”
Mr. Foster called Mr. Bennett.
“I tried repeatedly. I told him he could call me night or day, any day of the week; I gave him my home number. I was told at one point I was definitely on his call list. He never called.”
“What would you have asked him?”
“I would have asked him questions that Starr should have asked. How it might have been transmitted? I wrote out a number of questions, in the right order that they needed to be asked in, so as not to tip my hand.”
“He’d have known just what you were up to,” I said.
Mr. Foster nodded. “He’s much cannier than I am …. But to have an informed opinion, I’d need some samples of his writing.”
“And if he started yelling at you?”
Mr. Foster smiled queasily. “One doesn’t want to run afoul of a $500-an-hour K Street lawyer. Even now, that gives me a little apprehension.”
(Mr. Bennett, but not Mr. Lindsey, returned my call. He said that Mr. Foster’s assertion was “reckless and irresponsible,” and that he had absolutely no idea who had written the Talking Points. And he also asked me to remind him what was in them.)
I asked Mr. Foster about his “gotcha” desire, which at times seems to trump his literary interests. He said he had grown up in an evangelical family, and that moral training is something he won’t ever outlive, even though he has walked away from Christian devotion.
“Nietzsche once remarked that Christianity, in its privileging of the truth, contains the seeds of its own demise,” he said. “I think that applies to me.”
As for his view on the scandals, Mr. Foster has contempt for Kenneth Starr, mixed feelings about Bill Clinton and surprising sympathy for Monica Lewinsky.
“I don’t think Monica Lewinsky’s interests were served by anyone, even by her own lawyers, when you consider all the detail she went into in matters of her sexual affairs,” Mr. Foster said. “I don’t see what the value was in taking this young woman who had no reputation and publishing the most intimate details of her sexual relationship with the President. Even a convicted criminal has more rights. Ted Kaczynski has autobiographical writings that detail his sexual fantasies and psycho-sexual history, and they’re often shocking. But even Ted Kaczynski has some right to maintain privacy in matters that aren’t pertinent to the commission of crimes….”
Mr. Foster left for class, and I walked off his railless porch, somehow pleased to think this mystery of the Clinton years was staying one.
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