The day the world learned about Monica
   Sib Blumenthal's book excerpted in The Guardian

As special adviser to the president, Sidney Blumenthal had a ringside seat as scandal engulfed Bill Clinton.
Here, in the first part of our serialisation of his compelling new book, he paints a vivid picture of a
president at bay - and reveals the murky political motives that were driving Kenneth Starr's investigation

It was about 6.45 am on January 21 1998 when I bolted from my house for the West Wing. I arrived before almost
anyone else. Fewer than a dozen of us filed into chief-of-staff Erskine Bowles's corner office for the regular 7.15 am
meeting and sat around his long table. We all turned to the Washington Post in our White House news summary.

Bowles was white, his voice subdued. Just a week before, he had agreed reluctantly to serve for another year. He had
wanted to return to North Carolina, where his wife and children spent most of their time. For him, negotiating the passage
of the balanced budget the previous fall had been a crowning achievement. There would be much more to do, but he felt
he had done what he had come to Washington to do. He had not bargained on being thrust into the middle of a scandal.

During the Whitewater investigation, he had been subpoenaed before the grand jury and had not liked it a bit.
Now everything about his body language and tone conveyed that he wished he were anywhere but where he was.
He said that the White House staff would focus on the work at hand and avoid distraction. But he was clearly upset.

As information began to pour out, we learned that he had played a tangential role in trying to get Monica Lewinsky a job.
Perhaps the revelations about her and Bill Clinton came as less of a surprise to him than to others. None the less, the impact
swept him off his feet. After a mid-morning meeting with lawyers and political staff, he remarked: "I think I'm going to throw up."

By the time the senior staff meeting finished, at about 8am, the last semblance of regular order had departed. Pandemonium
descended. The television morning shows were preaching apocalypse. On ABC's Good Morning America, White House
correspondent Sam Donaldson held forth: "If Kenneth Starr can mount sufficient evidence that the president of the United
States told this young lady to lie, that's a federal crime, that's suborning perjury. And, clearly, a serious impeachment
investigation would begin on Capitol Hill."

Tensions were already developing within Clinton's staff. The political aides thought the lawyers were withholding information.
The lawyers, both those in the counsel's office and Clinton's outside attorneys, believed that information had to be guarded
and dispensed according to the best interests of the president's legal situation. But nobody had much information to begin with.
The political people tended to think that the lawyers lacked political sense, while the lawyers tended to think that the political
staff lacked legal understanding. Each believed that the other side might create a catastrophe if given control and left to its own
devices. But neither side really had a strategy.

Out of the early meetings, a consensus emerged to issue a statement on behalf of the president denying the charges. Almost
everyone in the White House was swamped with phone calls from the media, demanding responses, tidbits, hints, anything to
feed the story that was the only story. Charles Ruff, the legal counsel, wrote a draft statement in which the president, through
the press secretary, Michael McCurry, would say that he was "outraged by these allegations" and "never had a sexual relationship
with this woman". Someone in the meeting suggested a word change: from "sexual" to "improper". McCurry, with Clinton's
concurrence, released the statement. Since "impeachment" had already been uttered on ABC News by its new correspondent,
George Stephanopoulous, a former Clinton aide, "improper" became the other "I" word of the day.

After the early rounds of breathless meetings, I telephoned David Brock midmorning. Brock was a veteran of scandal who had
become my secret source on chicanery of the right. It was he who had dropped the pebble that first started the avalanche: his
article in the American Spectator, in December 1993, where he mentioned "Paula" as a woman who had allegedly been sexually
harassed by Clinton, had prodded Paula Jones into filing her suit. (On April 1, Jones's suit was thrown out by the judge in the
case for completely lacking merit.)

Brock had prided himself on being a "rightwing hitman", as he described himself. He was advised, coddled and partied by the most
prominent Republicans in Washington, becoming a fixture at their conferences and meetings, and at the dinner table of influential
Republican lawyer, Ted Olson, who had been Starr's law partner - and has since been appointed by George Bush as solicitor general.
Many Republican elders lent Brock their wisdom on how to throw his poison darts at Clinton. Brock was the sorcerer's apprentice.

By the end of 1997, however, he had become thoroughly disenchanted with his former friends and sponsors, and by the time
we first met, in November, he was beginning to "turn". It was from him that I first learned about the "Arkansas Project", the
codename for a campaign by a group of conservative zealots, rooted in the American Spectator and funded by a reclusive
rightwing billionaire, Richard Mellon Scaife, to bring down the Clintons by smear and scandal.

Later that day, I related to Hillary Clinton my conversation with Brock. I had been telling her about him all along. His extraordinary
and precise revelations about how a small group of conservatives, who controlled the Jones case, had conspired with Starr's office
to set in motion the Lewinsky scandal. Thanks to Brock we could see the lines of influence underlying the scandal, the cause and
effect, intent and action - and they were political and familiar.

Above all, though, she and I had no doubt we were confronting a supremely political crisis. Starr's investigation was a daring
political venture that used dubious accusations of criminality as a justification. The notion that Clinton and his close personal friend
Vernon Jordan - who had been a prominent civil rights leader and had since become an influential Washington attorney - had
criminally conspired to suborn Lewinsky to lie about her relationship with the president and to obstruct justice struck me as ridiculous.
Whether Starr would succeed in making this charge stick would depend on the politics. Could he foster enough hysteria and
momentum? Neither of us was panicked. This was politics; perhaps a greater crisis than ever, but politics none the less.
The president's remark to Hillary, she told me, was simply: "Well, we'll just have to win."

At about six that very evening, Betty Currie, the president's secretary, called and asked me to come up to the Oval Office.
I found the president alone, standing, his gaze distracted. I had always previously found him in command in the Oval Office.

Now he started pacing slowly behind his desk and then in front of it. He rearranged knick-knacks. He wanted to explain to me
about Lewinsky. He told me that he had been trying to help her. I recounted to him that I had spoken to Hillary and that she had
told me the same thing. Before he could elaborate, I said that I understood his feeling of wanting to counsel a troubled person.
I knew he was compassionate. I knew he had helped many people. Then, I said: The problem with troubled people is just that,
that they're troubled. These troubled people can get you into incredible messes, and I know you don't want to, but you have to
cut yourself off from them. He replied: It's very difficult for me not to want to help. That's how I am. I want to help people. I cut
in: You can't do that at this point, whatever you've done in the past. The reason is that you have to be self-protective. You can't
get near anybody who is remotely troubled. You don't know how crazy people may be. You are the president.

He shifted the discussion. He told me that he had spoken that day to Dick Morris, who had been a key political strategist for
Clinton after the Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994, until tabloid revelations about his relationship with a prostitute led
to his ignominious departure. I wasn't surprised; I knew he maintained some contact with Morris. Most of the people on Clinton's
staff despised Morris; I was one of the few who didn't. I had had no history of conflict with him; I thought his political intelligence
deserved a hearing, which should not be confused with accepting his advice.

Clinton knew I thought that. He told me that Morris had said to him that if Nixon, at the beginning of Watergate, had delivered a
speech on national television explaining everything he had done wrong, making it all public, he would have survived. I thought this
was one of Dick's wacky ideas, a complete misreading of history and a false analogy. The plumbers who broke into the Democratic
National Committee headquarters had committed crimes at Nixon's behest and were being paid from a secret fund he had authorised.
I asked Clinton: What have you done wrong? Nothing, he replied. I haven't done anything wrong. Then, I said, that's one of the
stupidest ideas I've heard. Why would you do that if you have done nothing wrong?

He launched into an account of an incident involving Lewinsky. He said that she made a sexual demand on him and he rebuffed her.
He said: I've gone down that road before, I've caused pain for a lot of people and I'm not going to do that again. He said she responded
by threatening him. She said she would tell others they had had an affair. She said that her name among her peers was "the Stalker",
that she hated being called that. If Clinton had sex with her and she could say she had had an affair, she wouldn't be known as the
Stalker any more.

I repeated to Clinton that he had to avoid troubled people. You need to find some sure footing here, I said, some solid ground, some traction.
I feel like a character in a novel, Clinton said. I feel like somebody who is surrounded by an oppressive force that is creating a lie about me
and I can't get the truth out. I feel like the character in Darkness at Noon. I did not respond to this reference to Arthur Koestler's novel
about one of the original Bolsheviks facing a purge trial and execution for political crimes. Instead, I asked a series of questions about reports
I had read or heard about Lewinsky. Were you alone with her? I asked. I knew that the Oval Office had outside peepholes at its doors.
I had looked in through them myself many times. The president was surrounded by a host of watchers, by aides, secretaries, valets, waiters,
Secret Service agents. If he were ever alone, he would have to arrange it carefully. I was within eyesight or earshot of someone, he said.

You know, I said, there are press reports that you made phone calls to Lewinsky and that you left voicemail messages on her machine.
Did you make phone calls to her? He said he recalled calling to tell her that Betty Currie's brother had died in a car accident. He explained
that Lewinsky had been friendly with Currie, that Currie had been kind to her.

I repeated myself again. You need to find some solid ground here, I said. You need to find some traction. I mentioned that I had heard a
report that Vernon Jordan had scheduled a press conference the next day. Maybe, I said, that will provide some traction. Clinton didn't
say anything. Our extraordinary meeting ended.

For a week, the Lewinsky scandal monopolised the news, amid frenzied reports that the president would be forced out of office, yet inside
the White House, life went on. A week after the story first broke, on January 27, Clinton was scheduled to deliver his State of the Union
address, outlining his legislative programme for the year. Hillary was committed to give an interview on the NBC Today Show to coincide
with the State of the Union address. Until minutes before she went on air, Hillary and I were discussing what I had been learning from Brock
about the forces driving the scandal. When Hillary was asked whether there was a "war" between the independent counsel (Starr) and the
president's friends, her reply was: "I do believe that this is a battle. I mean, look at the very people who are in this, they have popped up in
other settings. This is the great story here, for anybody who is willing to find it and write about it and explain it, this vast rightwing conspiracy."

Hillary's phrase - "this vast rightwing conspiracy" - had an electrifying effect. For our adversaries, it became a point to deride and dismiss as
though it were fiction. But it galvanised those who wanted to defend the Democratic president, it forced the media to respond to her challenge,
and it stunned the right and Starr. Immediately, the "vast rightwing conspiracy" entered the political lexicon and debate. (A week later, less
than a fortnight after the Lewinsky story had broken, a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that 59% believed that "Clinton's political
enemies are conspiring to bring down his presidency".)

When the president gave his speech that night, the public rallied to him as never before, supporting his progressive programme - and
demonstrating a healthy degree of scepticism about the scandal and its promotion.

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