April 05, 2020

Fiddling in the face of Clinton scandal, soda saga

There are times when even I see the irrelevancy of my life, which this week can be summed up by the words George Orwell used to describe Nero: “He is fiddling while Rome is burning, and, unlike the enormous majority of people who do this, fiddling with his face toward the flames.”

But for the ice storm, I would be playing golf in Florida this week. That seems of little importance to anybody but me.

I rang up brother Richard last night to make sure he would be at the Fort Lauderdale airport to pick me up in a rental car, as he had promised to do before the storm. Richard is claims manager for an insurance company in Auburn, which — like everybody else — was left without power. For nearly a week he and his staff worked virtually around the clock from an emergency war room set up in a motel suite. In case I was interested, Richard said, the firm received more homeowner damage claims from storm victims in a single day than the entire year to that point.

“Are you going to be there? I can’t change my flight to accommodate you again,” I responded.

He replied, “You know where you can go!” (or words to that effect) and slammed down the phone.

Concerned about my house back in Maine, I zipped off an e-mail note to neighbor Mike Sheridan, who said electricity was no problem. In passing, he mentioned that a recent University of Maine at Farmington graduate, who had rented a house close to ours for the ski season, disappeared under mysterious circumstances after a New Year’s Eve party at Judson’s Motel near Sugarloaf. Residents of the region are consumed with rumors and concern that a murderer may be walking among them, Sheridan said.

Glad I’m here and not there, I thought.

Things down here, I figured, would remain in hibernation until the president’s State of the Union address.

No such luck. The sweet little dead zone ended with an Internet-driven firestorm over President Clinton’s alleged girlfriend.

Matt Drudge, who runs a media gossip Web page, reported that Newsweek spiked a story last week about a former White House intern named Monica Lewinsky, who had been subpoenaed by Paula Jones’ attorneys to testify about statements she supposedly made to a co-worker regarding a sexual relationship with President Clinton. According to Drudge, Lewinsky has been working as a press aide in the Pentagon since 1996, but allegedly made numerous nocturnal visits to the White House that seemingly had nothing to do with defense matters.

The name sounded familiar. I checked the notes for my trip to Bosnia with Defense Secretary Bill Cohen last month and, sure enough, there was Lewinsky’s name and phone number as one of the media contacts for the trip.

All hell broke lose Wednesday morning.

The lead story in The Washington Post reported that Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr now is investigating allegations of obstruction of justice and suborning perjury against Clinton and Vernon Jordan, the civil rights leader. According to the Post, Starr suspects the two men may have pressured Lewinsky to lie under oath in a recent deposition taken for Jones’ sexual harassment lawsuit in which she denied having sex with the president.

The story gets better.

Another Pentagon press aide named Linda Tripp is reported to have secretly made upward of 20 hours of tape recordings of her conversations with Lewinsky. The former intern is said to have described her alleged romantic encounters with Clinton. Some of the recordings reportedly were obtained by a wired microphone installed on Tripp by Starr’s investigators.

Administration aides were besieged by reporters Wednesday demanding the release of Secret Service “wave” (computerized White House entry) records that could prove — or disprove — the claim that Lewinsky made numerous after-hour visits to the White House while working as a Pentagon aide.

The fact that all of this stuff bubbled up in Bill Cohen’s Pentagon press shop, one might suspect, could put a strain on relations between Cohen, the only Republican in Clinton’s Cabinet, and the president’s reeling Democratic defenders. Cohen won’t return from an overseas trip until Friday. A Pentagon spokesman ducked all questions about Lewinsky at Tuesday’s press briefing.

The following thought occurred to me.

I’m sort of on the edge of all of these events — the ice storm, missing skier, and mystery woman in Ken Starr’s new investigation of the president.

But not really connected to any of them.

Could there be a greater irrelevancy?

Roll Call, the newspaper that covers Congress, answered that question.

With New England returned to the ice age and the Clinton presidency teetering on yet another crisis, what was the main concern of Capitol Hill staffers last week?

The price of soft drinks, according to Roll Call, in a story that ran under the headline, “House Soda Price Bubbles Into Angry E-Mail Revolt.” Reporter Francesca Contiguglia said the House computer system was deluged with e-mail messages complaining that the price of a 20-ounce soda rose from 90 cents to $1, and then to $1.15, in the space of a few days after a new food concession company took over operation of the congressional cafeterias. The hot dog vendors on Pennsylvania Avenue charge only 75 cents, an angry e-noter pointed out.

Leadership aides warned that the tidal wave of chain-letter messages urging a cafeteria boycott threatened to compromise the operation of the entire House computer system, it was reported.

Those congressional Coke drinkers, I think, may have edged me out for George Orwell’s “fiddling while Rome burns” prize. — WASHINGTON John Day’s e-mail address is zanadume@aol.com

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