WASHINGTON — At 9 a.m. on the day Washington came unhinged, Erskine Bowles walked into the Oval Office and found Bill Clinton standing behind his desk, looking down.
It was Jan. 21, 1998. That morning The Washington Post had published a story that said independent counsel Kenneth Starr was investigating the president's links to an ex-White House intern named Monica Lewinsky.
Discussion about the coming State of the Union address was going to have to wait. Mr. Clinton fixed his gaze on Mr. Bowles, then his chief of staff, and denied the relationship, denied urging anyone to lie, denied the whole thing. "When the facts come out, you'll understand," he said.
The owlish Bowles replied that whatever the facts were, they ought to come out as fast as possible. This was not something he wanted to deal with. He prided himself on efficiency - he'd done a time-and-motion study of Clinton's office behavior, for instance - and this Lewinsky matter threatened to get in the way. Let the lawyers handle it.
Later, Bowles was asked if he believed all the salacious allegations that quickly filled the press.
"I definitely don't want to believe them," he said.
Nor did most Americans. But they were true. At least, many of them were.
From that morning until today, the US political system has been in crisis, struggling with the effects of a president who had an affair with a young aide, and then, at the very least, stretched the limits of the law as he tried to conceal it from the nation.
Most of the facts have come out. Contrary to Clinton's statement, it's still hard to understand what everyone was thinking.
A series of complex personal relationships - Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky, Lewinsky and Linda Tripp, Mr. Starr and his targets, House managers and senators - have forever altered US political history. Their actions have caused the nation to look hard at many of its deepest cultural beliefs about morality, responsibility, and the law.
This is their story.
On Nov. 15, 1995, Monica Lewinsky decided that her big chance had arrived. She needed to make the most of it. As a White House intern, she had already been identified by top officials as the type of youngster they called a "hall surfer" - someone who grabbed any excuse to patrol the exclusive real estate of the White House West Wing, in hopes of seeing someone powerful.
Early on, her target may have been the most eligible young bachelor in the White House, George Stephanopoulos. She had occasionally loitered outside his office, asking his aides what kind of hot beverages he liked, and whether she could fetch them.
Now she was cruising past Mr. Stephanopoulos's office again, but it was the Big Guy himself, Bill Clinton, who was motioning her inside. She'd flirted with him earlier at a party. It must have worked.
She flashed her big, direct smile. "I have a crush on you," she said.
He invited her to his study. They kissed. The course of the nation was altered.
The mystery of their attraction remains the central unexplored territory of the case, one that, though the most private, goes to the heart of his reckless behavior that had the most public of consequences.
All relationships may be mysteries, even to their participants. This simply happens to be one that has entered the public realm.
On the surface, it is an ancient story: Older, powerful man, meets young, willing woman. What more is there? Lots, according to the enormous detail piled up by Mr. Starr about the case. Whatever its legal effect, the tens of thousands of pages of testimony, gift lists, phone messages, tape transcripts, notes, and photos are arguably a tour de force of literature, a modern and unromantic portrayal of two intertwined lives that rivals Proust in its sheer detail.
The relationship was not so much a relationship as an explosion. They virtually leapt into intimate activity. Was Clinton too experienced, a predator, as his fiercest critics have charged? Monica thought he was isolated in the prison of the White House, maybe a bit lonely. She wrote him a message in which she said he was "unfulfilled."
For her part, friends told her she was just the sort of person to have an affair with the president. She liked that. It would be something to tell her grandchildren, she thought.
She'd gotten involved with a man who had something of a well-developed interest in himself. No doubt about that. Of the books that Clinton had picked to line the Oval Office, the most prevalent subject, by far, was himself. He had 16 volumes about Lincoln and 46 about Bill Clinton, including the Japanese translation of an admiring biography.
Perhaps his power fed her sense of self-worth. He gave her inexpensive gifts, some of which other people had given him. Hers were carefully chosen and meant to send subtle signals. She sent him postcards featuring works of particular artists to convey specific emotions. She shopped long and hard to find him just the right antique book about American presidents. An expert hired by Starr determined that she had paid too much for the volume.
In the end, there was that desperate feeling of being dumped that can reduce the most secure adult to a teenager.
"I can't win for losing," she complained to her friend Linda Tripp one day. "I can't - I freak out when I think about not talking to him."
"I know ... We have to get beyond this," said Ms. Tripp.
"He's going to say to me, 'You know what? You're crazy. And I don't want to have anything to do with you' " said Lewinsky.
In December 1997, Lewinsky threw a fit at the White House gate when she found out that her appointment with the president was being delayed because he had another young women in his office. She flew off in a rage.
The other woman was Eleanor Mondale, the glamorous daughter of the former vice president. Their meeting stretched on because Clinton was telling her how much he disliked her ex-boyfriend.
Speak a little closer to the potted plant, Monica my dear
Linda Tripp was nervous as she prepared for what undoubtedly would be her last friendly conversation with Monica Lewinsky. She'd never worn a body wire before and kept asking the FBI agents how it worked. She was worried about her table. The Ritz Hotel at the Pentagon City mall in Crystal City, Va., was a popular place - where else could you have tea in surroundings reminiscent of an English country house, and shop for shoes afterward? The noise level might keep the tape recording she was about to make from being incriminating.
And she'd forgotten her credit cards. If her guest ordered anything, would the Ritz take a check?
"This is not routine, I promise," she told the restaurant manager.
She didn't need to worry. Monica suspected nothing. She went over the whole gamut of her problems, from the effort to find her a job, to her troubles with her chief executive boyfriend and her possible involvement in the Paula Jones case. She was grateful to have someone to talk to.
As they prepared to leave the restaurant, Tripp asked Lewinsky if she would pick her up in the parking lot, and drive her around to a place where she could get a diet soda.
Lewinsky was expansive. "I'd drive you to the moon, my dear," she said.
"Yeah, sure. Um, all right," said Tripp.
Those are the last words on the now-famous body wire tape. In a way, they capture the entire friendship between the bubbly, talkative young Lewinsky and her sounding-board friend.
They had bonded in the first place because they were both White House exiles in the Pentagon. A vast, mazelike building full of majors who can focus on churning out paperwork as well as taking a ridge line, it can be an unfriendly place to those not conversant in the language of the armed forces. Neither Tripp nor Lewinsky liked it - though Tripp had been married to an officer.
Views towards Lewinsky in the building were mixed, but generally positive. She did her job as a low-level public relations aide reasonably well. Tripp was another story. Her superiors Lynn Reddy and Ken Bacon exchanged memos complaining about her attitude. She was no team player - Tripp hit the highway for her Columbia home early, no matter how much work was left to do.
Perhaps Linda felt Monica added a spark of glamour to her life. They talked often about haircuts and dresses. Tripp would complain her dress made her feel like a sheathed walrus. Lewinsky would reassure her that wasn't the case.
But the lovestruck Lewinsky was not shrewd about their relationship. She never noticed the steering - the way her older friend would say little, and then quietly urge her to keep that dress, or make sure her interests were protected.
It wasn't bad advice, depending on the adviser's motivation. And Tripp had a little more experience in the way the world's tectonic plates can shift suddenly, leaving everything different.
"I didn't get to this point in my career by being indiscreet," Tripp wrote Lewinsky in an electronic mail message in March 1997. "I KNOW when to be careful."
'I'm under oath, you're not.'
Are you upset, Mr. Lindsey?" said Jackie Bennett.
It was Friday, Aug. 28, 1998. In recent weeks the course of the Lewinsky matter had accelerated rapidly. Independent counsel Starr had finally been able to secure testimony from Lewinsky herself. The president, perhaps feeling political pressure, talked to the grand jury himself.
A few days earlier, he had stood before the television cameras and admitted that he had misled the country, that he had had an inappropriate relationship. Then he attacked his attackers. The whole thing was a personal matter, he said, and there was no need to continue the relentless investigation.
Now Bruce Lindsey, perhaps Clinton's closest top aide, was testifying - again. And he seemed to be getting tired of it. Ms. Bennett, one of Starr's deputies, was asking Lindsey if he'd ever seen news accounts charging that he'd tried to intimidate women who had been linked to Clinton.
"This is silly," said Lindsey, a lawyer himself.
"Sir, I assure you it isn't silly," said Bennett, who had a reputation as one of the most hard-charging members of the independent counsel's office.
"It is silly ... wasting my time," said Lindsey.
And there, in sum, was the whole antagonistic relationship between the White House and the prosecutors. It was a match of opposites that caused the prosecutors to distrust many top administration officials, and led Clinton's inner circle to feel they were being subjected to a witch hunt.
Lindsey felt that Bennett's question was sloppy. Ask me about a specific news report or allegation, he said. Otherwise you're just fishing.
"I'm under oath, you're not," he said to Bennett.
The prosecutors, for their part, were frustrated by Lindsey's continual assertion of executive privilege to refuse to answer questions that pertained to his discussions with Clinton about the Lewinsky matter. It was a novel interpretation of the law, at the least, they felt.
They kept hammering. Why had the White House withheld letters from Kathleen Willey praising her friend the president, and then released them after Willey publicly charged that Clinton had made a pass at her?
Was the purpose "basically to impeach Kathleen Willey's allegations?" asked a prosecutor.
"I wouldn't use the word 'impeach,' for a lot of reasons," said Lindsey.
Trent and Tom (gasp!) meet
It looked like the wheels were coming off the Senate trial of Clinton almost before anyone put the key in the ignition.
Most Republican senators wanted witnesses. Most Democrats didn't. Now a story was sweeping the Senate floor that Republicans were going to meet and ram their rules into law by sheer majority power.
Then majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi and minority leader Thomas Daschle (D) of South Dakota huddled on the Senate floor. It would turn out to be one of the most crucial moments of the impeachment end game.
The meeting wasn't closed, said Mr. Lott. Democrats were invited too. Let's hammer this out.
Daschle agreed. They walked off the floor and held a joint press conference. In the following weeks, the Senate would grope its way to a process that satisfied both sides - or at least didn't enormously upset majorities of senators on both sides - and thus gave seriousness and some bipartisanship to an event most Americans just wanted to go away.
Not that there haven't been strains. The failed effort to open final deliberations resulted in some partisan sniping. The Democratic effort to pass a censure of the president could yet split the chamber.
But the Senate has been a far different forum for the procedure than the more partisan House.
Hyde and seek
It was not a job Henry Hyde wanted. The longtime Illinois lawmaker already had the respect of his peers and the end of his political career was in sight. As the House impeachment inquiry progressed he spent many evenings at home, alone, watching TV. A handful of close colleagues occasionally called just to see how he was doing, invite him to a movie, or otherwise inject a semblance of normalcy to life.
The turmoil surrounding the impeachment vote - the fall of a presumptive Speaker to allegations of infidelity, the bombing of Iraq - had astounded Washington. Revelations about Mr. Hyde's own long-ago affair had not helped his image. Now it was the final day. His final day of involvement in this, anyway. Feb. 8, final arguments.
He stood before the Senate, a body that some of his fellow House managers were publicly criticizing for shoving their case aside. He talked about Clinton, yes. But he also talked about something else, something he said was his side's most formidable opponent: cynicism, the widespread conviction on the part of the American people "that all politics and all politicians are by definition corrupt and venal."
Then he said, in his formal way, something from his heart: "We are blessedly coming to the end of this melancholy procedure."
Then came his opponent, a man who had subtly dueled with him over the course of the Senate trial about the very moral basis of their arguments, who had responded in personal terms to Hyde's invocation of America's war heroes with a story about his own war-hero father.
Charles Ruff was gruff. He repeated his arguments that the case against Clinton, seen close up, had fatal, technical holes. Then he did something unusual, at least for him, and tried high rhetoric, calling on senators to listen to "voices of greater eloquence than any of us can muster, the voices of Madison and Hamilton ... and the voices of the American people now, and the voices of generations to come."
Nobody really knows what future generations will say, of course. But now it is left to them, to judge a year in Washington that, if anything can be said with certainty, was like no other.