Clinton-O-Rama  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   March 1998

Clinton-O-Rama   

A Lewinsky Lexicon

By Debra Puchalla
Debra Puchalla is AJR's associate editor and deputy editor of Martha Stewart Living.      


A Lewinsky Lexicon

I t wasn't a problem that the pace of the unfolding tale of Clinton in Crisis precluded some reporters from carefully crafting their prose. As news outlets focused on exposing whatever taw-dry morsel they could, the stories, it seems, wrote themselves.

There'd always been talk that President Clinton had a zipper problem. But there hadn't been a bimbo eruption in awhile, and despite all the president's women, Clinton, enjoying the most popular time of his presidency, may have felt safe from the Starr chamber.

But then, in a firestorm of controversy, the character issue resurfaced. A story broke, the likes of which the press hadn't seen since Watergate. Former White House intern Monica Lewinsky's then-friend Linda Tripp had surreptitiously taped conversations that could bring down the presidency, and handed them over to Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr.

The tapes, on which the pair discussed Lewinsky's alleged affair with the president, were explosive. The feeding frenzy began even though the tapes neither confirmed nor undercut the possibility that Clinton and his confidant, golf partner and ultimate Washington insider Vernon Jordan encouraged Lewinsky to lie about their relationship in a deposition she was to give in the Paula Jones lawsuit.

Through the leaks and subpoenaed administration officials, Clinton opted to deny, deny, deny, but the tale of sex, lies and audiotapes kicked the press into overdrive. Reporters spoke of impeachment or resignation as if it were on Clinton's daybook for the next week. White House spin doctors worked overtime, too. Mike McCurry stonewalled, insisting that he would not parse the language of the president. Staffers, meanwhile, went on the offensive and chose a mantra: "I know of no improper relationship between the president and Monica Lewinsky or any other White House intern, for that matter."

Over a couple of 24-hour news cycles word spread of Monica's semen-stained dress — less risqué editors offered athinly veiled rendition, alluding to a dress that could contain DNA evidence linking it to Clinton. From Matt Lauer to Ted Koppel, talking heads debated whether oral sex constitutes adultery and possible reasons for a former intern to visit the White House dozens of times. Broadcasters scrambled to get video, coming up with the flirty, bereted Monica gazing adoringly at and then embracing the notorious hugger Clinton. Lewinsky let her lawyer do the talking and talking and talking as she sat in seclusion in her Watergate apartment next to Bob Dole's.

Two weeks into Fornigate, the Comeback Kid seemed to be holding his own in the Starr war — his ratings were higher than ever. Damage control, for the time being, was working splendidly. Meanwhile, Clinton, after a -eekend of quality time with daughter Chelsea, tried to get on with the work of the nation.

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