Clinton Scandals, Stage III: The Buff Moment

What the hell was that all about? I think we may have just arrived at Stage III in the Natural History of National Scandals: Call it the Huh? Moment. It’s exactly two years after the Monica feeding frenzy first exploded, two years since the Presidency of Bill Clinton seemed to hang by a thread, virtually driven from the White House by Matt Drudge. And now it’s exactly one year after the Senate trial, after the whole bad-taste carnival of a case wound up in the gilt-encrusted Senate Chamber, a place whose self-conscious gravitas was witness to Representative Bill McCollum breaking the PG barrier by pronouncing the words “breasts” and “genitals” on the Senate floor.

I was witness as well, there in the Senate Chamber, as your Observer Impeachment Trial Correspondent, simultaneously awed and bored. Awed, at the very least, that it had come to this . But I’d wanted to be there for that trial. I’d felt cheated out of that once-in-a-lifetime ritual spectacle–something primal, mythic, something that conjured up the ritual slaughter of the king in The Golden Bough –when I’d covered the impeachment crisis of Richard Nixon. I’d felt cheated out of the trial by Nixon’s resignation, although I was there in the White House for that amazing moment in the East Room when Richard Nixon made his weepy tribute to his dead mother before heading out the exit for the copter that would take him into exile.

It was high drama, but the trial we were cheated out of might have resolved some of the maddening gaps and absences, enigmas and conflicts that still riddle the historical record of Watergate. Did Nixon order the initial break-in, for instance. (See my analysis of the clues on newly released tapes, “The Great Unsolved Nixon Mystery: Did He Order Watergate Break-In?” Jan. 11, 1999.) He was driven from office for the cover-up but till the day he died never stopped claiming he was innocent of the original act subsequently covered up. Same with Bill Clinton; he was almost driven from office for perjury and obstruction of justice over the Paula Jones case, but has never stopped insisting, with great indignation, that he was innocent of the initiating act, the crude hotel room sexual harassment of Paula Jones.

I think Nixon is still a valuable lens through which to look at the Clinton scandals. At the very least, a useful test of hypocrisy and consistency. Imagine if a Republican President as unpopular with liberals as Richard Nixon was accused of what Bill Clinton was accused of–not the blowjobs, but perjury before a Federal grand jury and the obstruction of justice in a sexual harassment case. I know Mr. Clinton’s defenders would want that Republican President hounded to within an inch of his life to sweat out the truth of his possible malfeasance (as would I). And I know they’d revile anyone who said a Republican President should get a pass because his opponents are partisans and the initiating offense he perjured himself about was not grave. But Mr. Clinton, we’re told, should get a pass for abuse of power because he’s “good on the issues” (i.e., gives lip service to them) and his opponents are bad. This stance empowers the next Nixon.

Yes, impeachment was disproportionate but thorough investigation is not. And that’s the problem; not just Ken Starr’s puritanical fanaticism but Mr. Starr’s disgraceful incompetence as an investigator. The real Starr scandal is that while sniffing for semen stains, he utterly botched the genuinely important investigations. Not Whitewater but Filegate, a truly shocking Presidential abuse of secret F.B.I. files by White House political flunkies looking for dirt on their opponents under the guise of “security checks.” Imagine if a Republican President had been caught doing that. I have a feeling a number of Clinton defenders would be talking about impeachment for that alone. They wouldn’t be satisfied with an inconclusive investigation.

But we still don’t know who was really behind this disgusting civil liberties violation, and we probably never will because Ken Starr, who was able to discover and report every orgasm in the Oval Office couldn’t get to the bottom of it.

And Hillary’s billing records being “lost” and then materializing out of thin air: Imagine if Richard Nixon tried to put over a story like that about long-subpoenaed documents suddenly appearing in a room in the White House, and blamed it on some low-level flunky. Right. But Mr. Starr couldn’t get to the bottom of that either.

I was thinking about these questions recently after reading Jeffrey Toobin’s smart, opinionated book on the Clinton scandals, A Vast Conspiracy . I don’t always agree with Mr. Toobin’s opinions, but his reporting serves to focus and define the areas of continuing mystery. Some of which, it seems, may forever be beyond definitive resolution. Which means we are now entering Stage III in the Natural History of National Scandals: After the Huh? Moment comes the Buff Moment.

I love the Buff Moment. I am a student of buff moments, having written about assassination buffs, Watergate buffs, Philby-Angelton-mole war buffs, Mary Meyer buffs (the J.F.K. mistress whose murder in Georgetown in 1964 is still officially unsolved–although I know who did it), Danny Casolaro buffs (the reporter whose 1990 death under mysterious circumstances in a West Virginia motel is regarded as the work of a vast “Octopus conspiracy” by some buffs).

I suppose you could think of me as a buff buff (if I were in better shape I could call myself a buff buff buff). The difference between a buff and a buff buff, I would say, is that the buffs are almost all convinced they have the truth, an alternate truth, a suppressed truth, a conspiratorial truth, but the truth. They know the answers. The buff buff still has questions, the buff buff is willing to admit uncertainty, to evaluate both the evidence and the fantasies of the buffs for what they tell us about the thing itself–the crime around which the subculture of buffdom has bloomed. And for what they tell us not just about the buffs, but about ourselves, about the fantasies, the longings and the consolations that are embodied in buff theories. One argument I made in my book, Explaining Hitler , is that Hitler theories often tell us as much about ourselves as they do about Hitler. The fantasies projected upon the blurry Rorschach of the historical evidence are often cultural self-portraits in the negative.

So now it seems we’ve come to the Buff Moment in the Clinton Scandals. I suppose, if you count Vince Foster buffs, we’ve been there for a while. But I’m sorry, Homey don’t play Vince Foster. Homey tuned out Vince Foster buffs when he saw them cite as “evidence” of a conspiracy, some alleged witness to the murder plot who claimed that 20 people stared at him as he was walking through the streets of Washington. Very mean stares, too. Homey don’t buy the idea of a secret Government SWAT team of grim starers (The Frowning Ninjas? The Bad Mood Bears?) dropped in the city by black helicopter to give the evil eye to key witnesses to secret White House murders. It’s a sign of an inability to distinguish paranoia from evidence in those who cite the starers. The problem with many conspiracy fantasies is that they just aren’t very economical about security. You’d think at least one of the Frowning Ninjas might have talked about their Vince Foster staring assignment by now. Or maybe they’re too terrified of heavyweight starers being targeted on them? Homey don’t play staring conspiracies.

But let’s shift from grim stares to a closer look at some of the genuine unresolved enigmas of the Clinton scandals. A kind of map of future buff territory. Beginning with:

1. What exactly happened in the hospitality suite of the Excelsior Hotel between Bill Clinton and Paula Jones? One of the most interesting aspects of Jeffrey Toobin’s book is the argument he makes that Paula Jones lied. Actually what he says is that both Paula Jones and Bill Clinton were lying. That he lied when he said he didn’t remember her, and that nothing sexual happened. And she lied when she said it was an unwelcome sexual advance. That, in other words, it was a “consensual deal,” to use a crass phrase Mr. Toobin reports Bill Clinton used when he confided his version of the Juanita Broaddrick rape allegation to “a friend.”

I’ve always tended to believe Paula Jones was telling the truth, in part because it seemed pretty clear that Bill Clinton was lying. It rarely turns out to be a mistake to assume Bill Clinton is lying. Remember when Billy Martin said of Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner, “One’s a born liar and one’s convicted”? Well, now (thanks to Judge Susan Wright of Little Rock who convicted him of contempt) Bill Clinton is now both–born and convicted.

Of course, only the two of them know the truth about the encounter. Mr. Toobin builds his case against Paula Jones by adducing various instances in which he implies Ms. Jones appears to have prevaricated. Over whether she’d had nude pictures taken of her, for instance. Here it depends on what the meaning of “nude” is. It turns out she had pictures of her and a boyfriend, both wearing bikini bottoms. (Hey, I just report the news.) And Mr. Toobin cites the testimony of a scummy-sounding ex-boyfriend of Paula Jones on the issue of whether she did in fact have the distaste for oral sex she expressed as a reason she would never have considered the crude Clinton overture. But the ex-boyfriend seems to have heard the scummy story secondhand. And then there’s the evidence that Paula Jones didn’t immediately express outrage, that she gave some people the impression she was flattered by the President’s attention. Neither of which is inconsistent with her feeling humiliated and perhaps not wanting to let others know of her anguish.

It was fascinating to watch Mr. Toobin and Ms. Jones face off on Larry King Live recently. I just couldn’t make up my mind what to think for sure, although I have to go with my gut feeling that Bill Clinton is the bigger liar. Still I respect Mr. Toobin’s thorough reporting on a mysterious incident that we may forever be denied absolute certainty about. An uncertainty that may not be important constitutionally or politically, but is at the very least novelistically interesting, because it asks the question Who is Bill Clinton, will we ever know? As does that other He Said, She Said conundrum dredged up by the Paula Monica scandals:

2. The Juanita Broaddrick allegation . This is perhaps the most disturbing, most crucial novelistically–and least likely to yield up certainty. Mr. Toobin confines himself to saying “Two decades later it was simply impossible to determine what if anything had occurred between these two people.” He does, of course, give us that inimitably Clintonian remark to “a friend” that it was a “consensual deal.”

That has the ring of truth. Not as to consensuality, but the ring of the real Bill Clinton. It’s how he’d phrase his lie about it, although that doesn’t mean it was a lie. A “consensual deal .” Everything with this guy is a deal. The truth for him is a “deal.” You can see how he drove his investigators and defenders crazy. A fascinating instance of which, further illuminated by Mr. Toobin (and sure to be a staple of buffdom) is:

3. The “love tie” conspiracy . I’m not saying this is the most earthshaking question raised by the Clinton scandals, but you have to love the additional detail Mr. Toobin discovered: the second love tie. It’s almost a too-good-to-be-true comic echo of the “Second Oswald” theory in J.F.K. assassination buff subculture.

You know about the first love tie, right? That blue-gold Ermenigildo Zegna number that Bill Clinton donned for a public appearance on the day of Monica Lewinsky’s grand jury testimony. Donned, Mr. Starr’s office believes, in order to send her a secret signal that she was “still close to his heart,” in hope he’d limit the damage her testimony could cause him. (Poor Monica believed not just in the signal, but in its sincerity.)

Mr. Toobin reports that Mr. Clinton and his aides emerged from his videotaped White House testimony laughing at the ridiculous far-fetched nature of the “love tie signal” question he’d been asked. And Mr. Toobin argues that his discovery of a second love tie supports its absurdity.

The second love tie emerges from the world of the second Clinton brother, Roger. Someone recently suggested to me that Roger Clinton was the real Bill Clinton. Beneath the policy-wonk New Democrat shell Bill Clinton is Roger Clinton. Anyway, Mr. Toobin reports that at the height of the Impeachment crisis, Bill Clinton’s lawyer received a videotape featuring scenes of Roger Clinton shopping in Italy. “Roger Clinton’s agent had told him to look up another one of his clients, a woman named Marina Castelnuovo who made her living as Italy’s foremost Elizabeth Taylor impersonator.” (Could we pause a moment to pay homage to the lovely absurdity of this detail?) “In Rome, Castelnuovo took Roger shopping for Christmas presents for his brother, an expedition that was tape-recorded by RAI television network. When Italian television broadcast photographs of the Zegna tie in question,” Ms. Castelnuovo took time out from her strenuous Liz Taylor impersonation schedule and “realized that she and Roger had purchased that tie for the President.”

Sounds fishy, but Mr. Toobin tells us the Roger Clinton shopping tape was made two years before the love tie signal. Still, I don’t think this necessarily ruled out Bill Clinton using either love tie as a way of sending a disingenuous signal to Monica. (She would certainly think it was the one she gave him.) Again, it’s not a constitutional but a novelistic question: Just how thorough and nonstop a con artist is Bill Clinton? I say, bet on 24-7.

But to return to more substantive matters. Ones that have still been left in the limbo of historical irresolution, given over to the buffs by the failed official investigators. Such as:

4. The F.B.I. files . I want an answer to this one, the one I think is the most disgraceful official, as opposed to personal Clinton scandal. Liberal Clinton defenders have not exhibited much zeal about finding out who’s responsible for this Nixonian crime. Conservatives blame Hillary but lack a smoking gun, and they tend to blame Hillary for everything. But here liberals seem relieved that Mr. Starr has failed to find a culprit (suddenly here, Ken Starr is the wise and judicious prosecutor), when in fact they ought to be outraged by Mr. Starr’s disgraceful Inspector Clouseau-like performance on this issue. Hillary’s alleged culpability is even more in the foreground in:

5. The billing records mystery . The Rose Law Firm billing records that were under subpoena, but which disappeared for months and then suddenly mysteriously reappeared on a table outside Mrs. Clinton’s study in the White House residence. But she had nothing to do with their appearance or disappearance, she insists. Her story is that she welcomed their discovery because they were exculpatory (when in fact they were not). And now we see (in a fascinating moment in Gail Sheehy’s Hillary Clinton bio) one of her scandal handlers is trying to pin the blame on a hapless, long-suffering and loyal underling. Very Clintonesque. Again, it’s not what the billing records show, so much as the novelistic question: Who is Hillary? Naïve, out of the loop, and innocent? Shocked, shocked when the records turned up? Which brings us to what is sure to be the growth area in Clinton Scandal Buffdom:

6. The Hillary questions . They all come down to, Who is she, really? Hillary’s defenders tend to employ arguments that amount to saying she was naïve and even stupid rather than cynical and calculating. She was too naïve to suspect she might be manipulated by a well-wired Arkansas stockbroker who steered her into a $100,000 windfall on cattle futures (to put the governor in his debt). She was naïve enough to believe it was her own instinctive savvy in commodity futures trades that earned her the $100,000 with her own wits. And she was too naïve or too much “in denial” to know her husband was lying about Monica for nearly a year. She really believed him when he told her he was only “ministering” to Monica, feeling her pain, not her panties. O.K., it’s possible. I’ve always kind of liked her and could in some ways feel her pain at being consigned to the hideous hog pit of Bill Clinton’s Governor’s Mansion–and Bill Clinton’s idea of marriage. I’ve always felt she deserved any kind of comfort, platonic or otherwise, she derived from Vince Foster.

Who from all accounts seems like an incredibly decent, thoughtful guy, destroyed by his loyalty to the Clintons but not murdered by them. A guy who deserves better than to become an icon of idiot conspiracy theories. Still, once again, novelistically, the real Vince Foster question might tell us a lot about the way the Clinton marriage shook up the history of the Presidency. When I say the real Foster question I mean:

7. Not who killed Vince Foster but why he killed himself . And whether his relationship with Hillary Clinton was at the heart of his tragedy. I don’t think it’s a question for the Senate race; it has nothing to do with her qualifications for that job. But love triangles can often cast larger shadows than their tabloid origin; Tolstoy turned a love triangle into Anna Karenina . Was Vince Foster’s relationship to Hillary Clinton, whatever it was, a factor in his decision to kill himself, as some have argued? Inquiring buffs want to know. This is the second “love tie” that matters.

Clinton Scandals, Stage III: The Buff Moment