The Stakes Suddenly Rise for Clinton

President's alleged affair with an aide includes charges of perjury and a coverup.

Throughout Bill Clinton's presidency, the whiff of scandal has been no stranger to the White House. But the latest charges to erupt over the president's private life - including the allegation that he encouraged a coverup and perjury - are of a qualitatively different nature.

Resignation or impeachment are not outside the realm of possibility, if all the allegations bear out, say nonpartisan legal and presidential scholars.

The charges, which exploded Wednesday and have engulfed the country in speculation, center on an alleged affair the president had with a White House intern almost 30 years his junior and then advised her to lie about it.

What's different here - compared with allegations in the Whitewater financial investigation and the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit - is that Clinton is under fire for actions he allegedly took while president. And while having an extramarital affair, though unseemly, is not a criminal offense, obstructing justice is. And, as in Watergate, it's the possibility of a coverup that poses the greatest threat to Clinton's presidency.

Even if the legendarily resilient Clinton manages to dodge this bullet, his presidency could still face a devastating blow.

"His credibility is under attack, and a president who's lost credibility and lost the trust of the country can't govern effectively," says presidential historian Robert Dallek.

Clinton has long been a figure of immense paradox: The public has held him in low esteem for his personal moral and ethical standards, but with a booming economy and relative calm abroad, he has usually enjoyed high approval ratings. Just last week, polls showed public approval above 60 percent.

The latest allegations have not dented his standing, at least at this point, according to a Gallup poll taken for USA Today and CNN, released yesterday. Overall, the initial snapshot of opinion on the intern scandal presents a mixed picture: 54 percent of Americans said they were prepared to believe Clinton had had an affair with a White House intern. Slightly less than a majority tended to believe Clinton lied under oath about having an affair with her.

But so far, a thin majority of Americans - 51 percent - are inclined to believe the president didn't participate in an effort to obstruct justice by urging the woman to lie.

Clinton's approval ratings are crucial, especially as a second-term president. "He is particularly dependent on high popularity, because he's not ideological," says Allan Lichtman, a presidential scholar at American University here. "He doesn't have people who are willing to walk through walls for him."

Indeed, Democratic leaders in Congress have been reserved in their reactions to the latest Clinton mess. They're not rushing to his defense.

Still, says Mr. Lichtman, it's important to exercise caution in discussing the I-word - impeachment. So far, nothing's been proved. Allegations are flying thick and fast; leaked information about the content of secret audiotapes of the intern is circulating, as is information about the content of a deposition Clinton gave in the Paula Jones case.

The veracity and motivations of the cast of characters also must be considered, analysts say. Some criticize special prosecutor Kenneth Starr for going on a fishing expedition in his latest inquires to justify the time and money he has spent on a so-far inconclusive probe.

THE two key women involved in the scandal could have problems as witnesses against the president. Monica Lewinsky, the former intern, has given conflicting statements as to her relationship with the president. The woman who secretly taped private conversations with Ms. Lewinsky, Linda Tripp, also can be portrayed as a disgruntled former White House employee.

If the latest scandal does bring Clinton down, the impact will reach beyond him to the presidency itself. "Any assault on a president deepens public cynicism about politics and politicians in general," says Dallek, who teaches at Boston University.

At the White House, the mood is somber. Even those officials who usually can be called upon to put the most positive spin on events are hunkered down. So far, Clinton is doing what he's always done when faced with scorching allegations: Deny the charges and move on.

Cast of Characters in a High-stakes Drama

Kenneth Starr

He's the independent prosecutor investigating the president's involvement in the Whitewater scandal - broadly defined. Starr has expanded his probe in an effort to learn if Clinton lied under oath in the Paula Jones sexual-harassment case or if he advised Monica Lewinsky to do so.

Linda Tripp

She secretly tape- recorded phone calls with Lewinsky - later turning over tapes to Starr. A confidante of the young woman, Tripp also met with her while wearing a microphone supplied by the FBI. She worked at the White House while Lewinsky did, but their friendship developed after both moved to jobs at the Pentagon.

Monica Lewinsky

The former White House intern is at the center of the maelstrom, alleged to have had an extended sexual liaison with Clinton. She is to be questioned today by lawyers for Paula Jones about her relationship with the president, but is expected to invoke her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself. Lewinsky previously signed an affidavit stating she did not have an affair with Mr. Clinton.

President Clinton

Two questions are key to any legal action against the president: Did he commit perjury during last Saturday's deposition in the Paula Jones case, when he reportedly denied having a sexual liaison with Lewinsky? And did he obstruct justice if he urged her to lie during her deposition in the Jones case? Clinton says he did neither.

Vernon Jordan

He's a Washington powerbroker and the president's longtime friend, adviser, and golf partner. A lawyer in private practice, Jordan had not commented at press time about allegations that he urged Lewinsky to keep quiet or that he had recently landed her a job in New York City with a cosmetics company.

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