Throughout his more than two decades in politics, President Clinton has dazzled aides and supporters with his encyclopedic memory, an uncanny ability to recall names, faces, dates and conversations.
Yet on television screens nationwide last week, Clinton could be seen telling a federal grand jury again and again that he could not remember details of notable encounters involving his relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.
On 110 occasions during more than four hours of grilling by prosecutors representing independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, the president responded with statements such as “I don’t necessarily remember,” “I have no recollection” and “I don’t have an independent memory.”
Now, as Clinton battles to save his presidency, his inability to recall critical moments in the Lewinsky saga is certain to attract scrutiny as Congress weighs whether he committed perjury, obstructed justice and should be impeached.
Clinton attributes his memory lapses to the extraordinary demands on a president as well as the toll of Starr’s wide-ranging, four-year investigation.
“I don’t necessarily remember all the details of all these questions you’re asking me because there was a lot of other things going on,” Clinton said at one point in his videotaped testimony. ". . . until all this came out, this was not the most important thing in my life.”
But to lawmakers who question whether Clinton has come clean even after admitting to an improper relationship with Lewinsky, the lapses could suggest that he was following a legal strategy to avoid telling the whole truth. That could loom as a tricky issue in a case so heavily based on veracity.
“If you say you don’t remember something when you do, that’s perjury,” said Stanley Greenberg, a Los Angeles white-collar attorney. But, reflecting the challenge confronting members of Congress, he added, “It’s not a crime to say you don’t know. It’s not a crime to say you don’t remember. It’s not a crime to say you’re not sure.”
Indeed, Clinton initially claimed a loss of memory on various matters regarding Lewinsky during his Jan. 17 deposition in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual harassment case.
He testified under oath that he did not remember being alone with her in the Oval Office or giving her many gifts. He also said that he could not recall specific, sensitive conversations with Lewinsky, including one that had occurred only three weeks earlier.
The president himself conceded in his grand jury testimony that, in the aftermath of the earlier Jones deposition, he was troubled by his lack of recall: " . . . it bothered me that I couldn’t remember all the answers. I did the best I could.”
Clinton was far better prepared for his Aug. 17 grand jury testimony following seven months of extensive publicity about the Lewinsky affair. At that time, he admitted having “intimate, inappropriate contact” with her, including oral sex, even as he insisted this “did not constitute sexual relations.” He also acknowledged being alone on occasion with Lewinsky and providing her with numerous gifts.
Still, Clinton frequently told the grand jury that he could not recall a number of events, conversations and other details concerning his relationship with Lewinsky.
Members of Congress who may find themselves judging Clinton’s candor under oath will have to wrestle with the president’s shifting accounts and his frequent inability to remember important matters.
Proving an “I don’t recall” perjury case is hard enough, said Henry Ruth, a former Watergate special prosecutor. “It’s toughest of all when you’re dealing with a president who must himself deal with 100 different subject matters at different times of the year.”
At one point during his grand jury testimony, Clinton was questioned about an occasion when Lewinsky came to the White House gate the day after she learned that her name was on the witness list in the Jones case. She became angry when Secret Service guards informed her that Clinton was meeting with television reporter Eleanor Mondale.
Secret Service guards testified that Clinton in turn became irate when he found out that Lewinsky had been told about Mondale, going so far as to threaten to fire a security officer before later suggesting that the entire incident be forgotten.
Asked whether he became infuriated, Clinton initially said, “Well, I don’t remember all that.”
Clinton did recall, however, thinking that Lewinsky’s “conduct was inappropriate that day” and that it was wrong for anyone to disclose who he meets with.
Asked whether he “gave orders to the effect that we are going to pretend this never happened,” he responded, “No sir. I don’t recall it. First of all, I don’t recall that I gave orders to fire anybody. . . .”
Subsequently, Clinton said, “I don’t remember the whole sequence of events . . . except I do remember that somehow Monica found out Eleanor Mondale was there.”
If true, Clinton’s instruction that a federal employee forget the entire matter could be viewed as an improper use of authority to hush up his clandestine affair.
Another key episode involved Clinton’s discussions with Betty Currie, his secretary who cleared the way for many of Lewinsky’s visits to the Oval Office.
Currie told the grand jury that Clinton spoke to her the day after he testified in the Jones case and again several days later about his relationship with Lewinsky. Starr alleges that the president tampered with a potential witness by trying to influence Currie to hide the relationship in her testimony.
In his grand jury appearance, Clinton recalled the session with Currie on the Sunday after his Jan. 17 testimony in the civil case, which he said was an effort to refresh his memory, not to influence Currie’s. But the president said he did not remember engaging in any subsequent conversations.
“I don’t know that I did,” Clinton said.
Legal experts and longtime Clinton associates expressed surprise that he cited a lack of recall on so many occasions during his Aug. 17 appearance before the grand jury.
“When you get to that stage of an investigation and you go in front of the grand jury, there’s no reason that your recollection should not be refreshed,” said Juanita Brooks, a San Diego defense attorney who has represented public figures. “Politically, it looks bad because it does look like you’re lying and deliberately being evasive.”
Even some of Clinton’s advisors noted that, for a politician who for years exhibited an extraordinary knack for remembering all kinds of details, the president seemed to encounter unusual difficulty remembering seemingly noteworthy events in the Lewinsky saga.
One longtime advisor, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, scoffed at the notion of Clinton’s fading recall.
“I’ve never met anybody with a better memory for names, dates, places and facts,” the advisor said. “This guy has a phenomenal memory.”
Even Lewinsky testified that, early in her relationship with Clinton, she was startled when he rattled off her home and work telephone numbers from memory.
One of Clinton’s closest confidants, Washington power broker Vernon E. Jordan Jr., told the same grand jury that the president possesses “an extraordinary memory, one of the greatest memories” that he’s ever seen in a politician.
In an apparent bid to pressure Clinton to be more responsive, one of Starr’s deputies pointedly asked if he disputed Jordan’s assertion.
Clinton responded: ". . . I have been blessed and advantaged in my life with a good memory. Now, I have been shocked, and so have members of my family and friends of mine, at how many things that I have forgotten in the last six years, I think because of the pressure and the pace and the volume of events in the president’s life, compounded by the pressure of your four-year inquiry, and all the other things that have happened. I’m amazed there are lots of times when I literally can’t remember last week.”
Times researcher Tricia Ford contributed to this story.
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In more than four hours of videotaped testimony before a federal grand jury, President Clinton testified under oath on 110 occasions that he could not remember details involving his relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. Here are the responses Clinton gave and how often he used them:
“I don’t remember” (54 times)
“I don’t recall” (15 times)
“I didn’t remember” (8 times)
“I have no recollection” (4 times)
“I just don’t remember” (4 times)
“I couldn’t remember” (3 times)
“I don’t have any memory” (3 times)
“I’ve tried to remember” (2 times)
“I don’t necessarily remember” (2 times)
“I have no specific memory” (2 times)
“I don’t have an independent memory” (1 time)
“I honestly don’t remember” (2 times)
“I certainly have no memory” (2 times)
“My memory is not clear” (1 time)
“I certainly don’t remember” (1 time)
“I may have been confused in my memory” (1 time)
“I just don’t recall” (1 time)
“I don’t have the memory that you assume that I should” (1 time)
“I literally can’t remember” (1 time)
“I can’t possibly remember” (1 time)
“I honestly tried to remember” (1 time)
Source: Grand jury transcript
Compiled by TRICIA FORD/Los Angeles Times