The 'Don't Tell 'Em Anything' Strategy

What does the president say to his interrogators? Let's turn to that splendid biography of Bill Clinton by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, David Maraniss for some clues to what direction President Clinton's answers might take.

But first, I want to say something about the man who wrote "First in His Class," published in 1995. David Maraniss is the son of a highly regarded editor of the Madison, Wis., newspaper, The Capital Times - Elliott Maraniss - who always found a place in his newsroom for me to work whenever my political-reporting wanderings brought me into his city. Elliott and I had many a late-night gabfest about Joe McCarthy, John F. Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, and other political figures of the day. And once, young David, then a teenager, drove me out to the Madison airport where I was to make a connection with the Kennedy-campaign plane.

But now let's look at Mr. Clinton's past, through Maraniss's eyes - and his several hundred interviews with people whose lives intersected with Clinton's at every level - to see if we can find some insights into how the president will respond to questions on Aug. 17.

At one point in the book, Maraniss takes us back to mid-September 1991 when the soon-to-announce-for-president Bill Clinton, accompanied by his wife, came as a guest to a Monitor breakfast. Maraniss's account of the incident follows:

The day before the breakfast, a small group of Clinton strategists, including Bruce Lindsey and Stan Greenberg, met in Washington with both Clintons in the office of political consultant Frank Greer.

The focus of that meeting: What should Clinton do at the Monitor breakfast - if anything - to assure the crowd of reporters that his personal life was under control and that he would not implode like Gary Hart?

Here Maraniss writes: "The mention of the subject irked Clinton. The rules had changed since Hart, he said. Now there was so much hypocrisy involved. If you go out and divorce your wife, he added, you don't have to deal with this. But if you work at your problems, if you make a commitment, then you do. So people are rewarded in politics if they divorce their wives."

"That," writes Maraniss, "was the genesis of the answer they decided to give at the breakfast. He would say that he had had some problems, but that he and Hillary had worked things through, and they were committed to their marriage."

We know that is precisely what Clinton did say in his meeting with about 45 journalists the next morning - with Mrs. Clinton, at his side, nodding in agreement.

So Clinton did provide an explanation for his personal behavior back then - though he obviously was reluctant to do so. From this might we conclude that, in the end, he will provide an explanation - or even a mea culpa - to the Lewinsky-related charges?

Here we must take note of "inside" information we're getting that says Clinton will stick to his denial of any sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Well, if that's the truth, that's precisely what he must do.

But what if Clinton has not told the truth - as, polls show, most Americans today believe? What then will he do?

Here it is interesting, and, perhaps helpful, to note another Clinton comment found in Maraniss's book, uttered the night before the breakfast and after the then-governor had come back from dinner. To consultant Greer, Clinton said, "I just had dinner with Vernon Jordan and Jordan said, "Don't tell 'em anything!"

So here I move to speculation. Could it be that Clinton has concluded that providing explanations to the public and media about his personal life hasn't worked in the past - and that Jordan was right? Could it be that Jordan's advice is steering the president these days, backing up what seems to have been a strong disinclination on Clinton's part in the past to account for his personal behavior?

It's dangerous to predict what Clinton will do. Perhaps he's still making up his mind.

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