WASHINGTON — It may seem the supreme contrarian claim of a fast-moving week of news. While the White House has been portrayed as under siege after losing a series of big legal decisions, then voluntarily committing the president to testify for a grand jury, the actual mood inside the West Wing doesn't reflect the seeming gravity of the events.
Indeed, White House staffers are not nearly as shaken by this week's roller-coaster ride as they were when the Lewinsky accusations first broke. "It's not like January," says one aide. "We were all talking this morning about reports we heard about the White House being under siege. We wondered, who were they talking to?"
Even the president, whom a staffer describes as "extremely distracted" during the initial allegations, is now characterized as focused - "eager to get the [grand jury] testimony over with."
There are several reasons for the seeming calm. One is the belief that the president's decision to testify will clear the air and eventually quiet some of the media preoccupation. It also appeased many Democrats on Capitol Hill, who didn't want the president to challenge a subpoena. "Ultimately what counts are the facts, and the facts will back up what the president has said," asserts White House special adviser Jim Kennedy.
Staffers were also buoyed by reports that Monica Lewinsky herself, and not somebody in the White House, was the author of the so-called talking points - advice to Linda Tripp on how to answer questions in another case. The White House, too, has been receiving "back-channel" reports on grand-jury testimony and may feel special prosecutor Kenneth Starr has little damaging evidence.
But there is nervousness at the White House as well. No one knows the full extent of what Mr. Starr has dug up. The decision by Clinton to testify before the grand jury, even if by videotape with his lawyer present, is fraught with legal risks. "In the movies, this is where the director orders the stunt man to fall from great heights," says George Washington University Prof. Jonathan Turley.