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THE PRESIDENT TESTIFIES

Judgment Day in Court of Opinion

Reaction: After seven months, Americans finally hear from the president. While there was a shortage of news, there was an abundance of debate.

August 18, 1998|RICHARD A. SERRANO and ERIN TRODDEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Shortly after President Clinton began testifying to a federal grand jury Monday afternoon, an odd-looking man standing outside the White House began slashing his throat with a flat-top screwdriver.

Blood spilling across his shirt, the man screamed: "It's not about him. It's not about sex. It's not about what's going on in the White House. It's about Iran."

At the federal courthouse, where Clinton's answers to prosecutors' questions were transmitted to a grand jury, marshals played music from a boom box to ensure that no one could make out the president's words.

Inside a somber White House, Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles tried to boost morale at a morning staff meeting by recalling his father's words. "It's easy to be there for someone when they're up," Bowles said. "But it's the good ones who are there for you when you're down."

And at the Pentagon, where Monica S. Lewinsky and Linda Tripp once shared their work days, military officials found themselves enthralled that the moment of truth--any kind of truth--was at last at hand.

"Monica was the kind of person who wanted to make a noise in the world," said one Army officer, clearly exasperated. "I'm not sure she wanted to make this much noise, though."

For seven long months, since the day Lewinsky's name was forever joined with Clinton's presidency, the nation's capital has awaited his version of their relationship. Clinton may have denied earlier that it was sexual. But when he went before independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's prosecutors, he abruptly changed his tune.

The agony throughout much of the day in a city that thrives on instantaneous news was that for hours no one could know what the president was saying. Uncertainty was as high as the August humidity, and the mystery captivated much of the rest of the nation too.

In Iowa, in a nationally televised news conference, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) described the situation as "abysmal," pleading with the president to tell the truth. "The day of accountability is here," proclaimed Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Next to his side at the Des Moines airport stood Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), for whom Hatch was raising campaign funds. Grassley began speaking eloquently about the importance of public officials telling the truth, invoking the name of George Washington. But CNN was not interested and switched back to Washington.

In rain-dampened Martha's Vineyard, Mass., where Clinton and the first lady are expected to retreat for their annual end-of-summer getaway, there were few signs of their likely arrival today.

Even at the Black Dog gift shop and tavern--a popular Vineyard enterprise where Clinton was said to have purchased T-shirts in years past, including one allegedly given to Lewinsky--the topic of the day in Washington was most notably not the heart of conversation there, said executive chef Jack Livingston.

Before the dinner rush, Livingston oversaw the preparation of meals for 750 and, as best he could tell, the names Bill and Monica were on no one's lips.

Nor had anyone asked for the particular presidential T-shirt. Was anyone seeking it?

"Nope," he replied.

In a Chicago television studio, the Rev. Jesse Jackson watched the president's evening address in uncharacteristic silence, rubbing his face, wringing his hands and finally looking away from the wall of TV sets when Clinton spoke of hurting his wife and daughter.

When Clinton said, "Even presidents have private lives," Jackson nodded.

After the address, a somber Jackson gave the president high marks. "He did very well," Jackson said. "He was very explicit and took responsibility for his actions. It was wrong. The burden is on his shoulders."

Jackson has been in close contact with the first family for several weeks. But on the eve of the president's testimony, he met with the Clintons--at the request of Chelsea Clinton. Jackson spent about half an hour with the family Sunday night, from 10:30 p.m. to 11 p.m., counseling and encouraging them, he said.

The day on the airwaves was filled with talking heads with zero knowledge of what Clinton was actually telling his chief nemesis, Starr. But they did have pictures, and they ran the tapes ad nauseam, including shots of Starr arriving at the White House diplomatic entrance in a blue Ford sedan sporting a power-red tie.

At the White House, the operative term was "inappropriate" behavior--a phrase that jabbed in the air for those Clinton loyalists who all these months had defended him and his earlier assertions that there was no sexual relationship.

And, as if to add further injury, one network television correspondent braced White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry when the presidential spokesman approached the briefing room lectern, asking if he would raise his right hand and swear to tell the truth.

Times staff writers Amanda Elk, Paul Richter and Jodi Wilgoren in Washington, James Gerstenzang in Martha's Vineyard, and Eric Slater in Chicago contributed to this story.

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