A tawndry drama of the utmost importance to the future of Bill Clinton, the presidency, and the nation is expected to play out today behind closed doors in the federal courthouse in Washington.
It will begin when a panel of citizens calls upon Monica Lewinsky to "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" about her alleged extramarital relationship with the president.
Truth can be an elusive target in the kind of high stakes grand-jury investigation now under way into the actions of Mr. Clinton, particularly for a young woman who admits that she has lied when convenient throughout her life.
But when Ms. Lewinsky appears before the panel, she will face a point of no return as she grapples with what constitutes "the whole truth" about her alleged relationship with the president.
Meanwhile, outside on the courthouse steps, a scandal-weary nation will wait with reporters for any hint of the range and extent of her testimony. And at the White House, the president and his lawyers will also be watching.
Will Lewinsky acknowledge that she had a sexual relationship with Clinton, as her attorney has hinted?
More important, what will she say about alleged efforts by the president, his friends, and aides to obstruct justice by urging others to lie to cover up sexual misconduct at the White House?
Impact of testimony
It remains unclear how much of her testimony will become public knowledge and how much will remain cloaked behind the mandate of grand-jury secrecy. But whatever she says will affect the direction and scope of this investigation.
Despite suggestions that she plans to refuse to testify, most legal analysts expect that Lewinsky will be ordered by a federal judge to answer prosecutors' questions after being granted limited immunity from prosecution for her testimony before the grand jury.
Legal experts say her testimony has the potential of making or breaking the investigative efforts of independent counsel Kenneth Starr.
"I think it is clear that she will testify that there was some kind of sexual relationship," says Clifford Fishman, a law professor at Catholic University in Washington. "But the crux of the matter is whether she will also testify about whether someone in the White House - whether the president, or Vernon Jordan, or someone else - fairly explicitly told her to tell other than the unvarnished truth in her affidavit in the Paula Jones sexual-harassment case."
An admission of a presidential affair by Lewinsky would not only be embarrassing to the White House, it would also suggest the president lied about the true nature of his relationship with Lewinsky in a sworn deposition on Jan. 17 and directly to the American people in the days since. But that embarrassment pales compared with the potential damage to Clinton should Lewinsky testify that he played a role in urging her to lie in the Paula Jones case.
In the weeks since the Lewinsky matter became public, Mr. Starr has resisted granting blanket immunity to the former White House intern because he did not believe she was prepared to tell the whole truth about what he views as a White House conspiracy to cover up the president's alleged misconduct.
Lewinsky's lawyer, William Ginsburg, has suggested that his client was prepared to tell the whole truth as she knew it, but that Starr wouldn't accept her version because it did not include an account of wrongdoing by Clinton.
Now, if Lewinsky's testimony mirrors Starr's version of events, questions will be raised about whether Lewinsky embellished her account to avoid being prosecuted by Starr for her alleged false statement in the Paula Jones case.
"The government can put a tremendous amount of pressure on people," says James Eisenberg, a criminal defense lawyer in West Palm Beach, Fla. He says the tactic is used every day by federal prosecutors who grant immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony that supports the government's side of an investigation.
From a prosecutor's perspective, the concern is that Lewinsky may be willing to testify to some details of her relationship with Clinton, but is reluctant to say anything that might hurt Clinton or the presidency. Legal experts say it's impossible to hold such a stance under oath without inviting perjury charges.
"When you are testifying, you can't take into consideration the ramifications," says Mr. Eisenberg. "You can't say, 'I don't want to testify ... because it may implicate the presidency.' "
Lewinsky's testimony will likely also be influenced by the extent of corroborating evidence Starr's investigators have gathered. Such evidence could make it obvious to the grand jury if Lewinsky tries to cover up details.
"One of the difficulties that Lewinsky has is she doesn't know for sure what witnesses the grand jury has heard and what evidence they have seen. So if she lies, she has to guess whether they are lies that Starr can already prove are untrue," says Mr. Fishman.