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Archive for Wednesday, June 23, 1999

WOODWARD OPENS NEW WOUNDS

June 23, 1999

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If there were any questions left about Bill Clinton's much talked-about legacy, last week provided some answers. The punishment, our president is learning, doesn't stop at acquittal's doorstep.

Last week began with a historic victory in Kosovo, yet all the talk in Washington was about two Bobs -- Bennett, the president's rumpled pit-bull of a lawyer, and Woodward, the famous investigative reporter whose recent book about scandals is flying off shelves in the capital.

Who talked to Woodward? was the question on everyone's lips. In "Shadow," a book recounting the toll of the Watergate scandal on successive presidents, Woodward gives intimate details of private discussions between the president and Bennett.

"Mr. President," Bennett is quoted as saying, "I find your explanation about one of the women frankly unbelievable. This is what impeachment is made of. Your political enemies will eat you alive if there's anything in that deposition that isn't truthful."

Even O.J. Simpson's lawyers showed more loyalty than this.

Clinton, through his spokesman, has denied speaking to Woodward for the book. And the loquacious Bennett, fearful of being fingered as the source, has denied ever violating attorney-client privilege -- a back-handed way of saying it wasn't him. But that hasn't stopped the buzz, the search for a culprit, the deconstruction of a scandal that still has the power to push a war victory onto the capital's back-burner.

The book also continues a long Washington tradition: If victory, as the saying goes, has a hundred fathers, then defeat is surely an orphan. One by one, the bit players in the Clinton-Starr melodrama are scrubbing the tarnish off their own reputations under the cloak of anonymity. Why, it wasn't my idea to have the Starr report read like an issue of Hustler magazine, Starr's aides are reported as saying. And surely it wasn't Bennett's fault that his client was a lying sack of manure. Message to Starr and Clinton: You guys are on your own now.

We've seen this play before. As the Bush campaign was petering out in 1992, the anonymous gripes came swiftly. The president who prized loyalty above all suffered the wounds of a thousand cuts delivered by anonymous quotes: If only he had taken my advice, we wouldn't be in this mess. It also happened to Newt Gingrich, whose troops couldn't wait to second-guess his every decision once the popularity ratings plunged.

For Clinton, the worst indignity may have come on Wednesday, when his loyal poodle of a vice president went to Tennessee to announce himself as the "family-values" candidate for president. A clearer distinction could not have been made. Elect Al Gore and you'll never have to worry about your daughters becoming White House interns.

So what's a president to do? Here's the leader of the free world, riding a historic economy and flush with victory in a far-off conflict his critics lampooned as a losing proposition, and he barely has a friend left in Washington. Just desserts, most would say. But what if Mr. Clinton, he of the famously volatile temperament, decided to get even?

Let's assume for a minute that Clinton did not speak to Woodward. It's probably safe, considering Clinton's distrust -- make that contempt -- for the press. Maybe the leak didn't come from Bennett. We have no reason to doubt his word. But let's pretend that Clinton thinks it came from Bennett. Let's pretend the president decided to sue for breach of lawyer-client confidentiality.

We posed this question to Paul Rice, a law professor at The American University and an expert on attorney-client privilege.

"I don't think he could challenge the legal fees, but he could have a cause of action against him for breach of confidentiality."

It's not an idle notion. When the president leaves office, he and Hillary will owe at least $10 million in legal fees. Figures released in February by his legal defense fund (new numbers are due in August) show that $4.5 million of that has already been defrayed by contributions -- but the bills have also grown in that time-frame. It's safe to assume that at least a quarter of that money is going to Bennett.

Don't bet on it happening, however. Because here's the kicker.

"The question is going to be one of proof," says Rice. "And this is like a marital dispute. When you get two people up there, it's a simple question of who seems to be the most believable."

Who do you think wins that battle?

-- Jack Anderson and Jan Moller are columnists for United Feature Syndicate.

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