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Lewinsky Story Slows Down, Grand Jury Pace Speeds Up

Analysts say Clinton has little choice but to come forward and tell his side of the story.

At the end of another week in the Monica Lewinsky saga, the story has settled into that familiar feeling of water dripping on a rock.

New droplets of information, or alleged information, continue to emanate from the murky reaches of the various teams, both legal and political, at war over the president's future.

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Presidential aides and protectors - this week, it was long-time confidant Bruce Lindsey, former Secret Service agent Lewis Fox, and former personal aide Stephen Goodin - continue to file into federal court to be questioned by a grand jury.

Other key figures, such as Washington lawyer Vernon Jordan and Ms. Lewinsky herself, the former White House intern alleged to have had a sexual relationship with the president, sit in the wings, awaiting their turn in the courtroom.

Sooner or later, independent counsel Kenneth Starr will likely want to hear from the president himself.

Keeping quiet

Through it all, President Clinton has steadfastly avoided presenting his own version of events to the public - despite suggestions from former and current aides that there is a story to tell, and that it needs to be told.

All of this leads to the ultimate political question: Are the walls closing in on Mr. Clinton?

Analysts are divided as to whether Clinton can stonewall the Lewinsky matter ad infinitum. The president's greatest human shield - strong job-approval ratings by the public - is still in place, but it's not a very reliable shield, says political commentator William Schneider.

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"It can't protect him for a long period of time," says Mr. Schneider, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, "and it can turn on a dime when new information comes out."

Schneider notes that polling data aren't heading in the president's favor. The number of people who think the president did have a sexual relationship with Lewinsky and lied about it is growing, he says, because there's no alternative story. In addition, the number of people who think Clinton needs to say more about the Lewinsky matter - earlier this week, CNN put that figure at 51 percent of the public - is growing.

Statements this week by Clinton's former chief of staff, Leon Panetta, and his press secretary, Michael McCurry, added to the perception that the president can't maintain his silence forever.

On ABC's "This Week," Mr. Panetta said that "obviously there was something more here" than the president has revealed so far regarding his relationship with Lewinsky and "it's got to be explained to the American people."

Panetta said he took Clinton at his word that their relationship was not sexual and that he never told her to lie. "But I also think at some point he's got to tell the American people the truth of what was behind this relationship," Panetta said.

Mr. McCurry, the press secretary, created more momentum toward some kind of presidential explanation when he told the Chicago Tribune he didn't think there would be a "simple, innocent explanation" of Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky, and that it could turn out to be a "very complicated story, as most human relationships are."

The comments, which McCurry later chastised himself for making as inappropriate running off at the mouth, set off a storm of speculation as to whether he was easing the groundwork for some kind of presidential disclosure. McCurry insists that was not the case, but the net effect was that he did just that.

Iraq's impact

Still, other factors make the timing inappropriate for a Clinton statement. The showdown with Iraq, and the possibility of war, buys him more time. So does the economy, say analysts.

But if the president's goal is to hold off until after the November congressional elections, suggests political analyst Ross Baker, that's a pretty tall order.

"This is not going to go away," says Mr. Baker, a professor at Rutgers University. "It can be briefly eclipsed, but ultimately the full story has to be divulged. He won't do it until he has to .... But if the story is told [before November], and it's an unseemly one, and it appears the president encouraged lying, then it redounds to the detriment of Democratic candidates."

Some Democratic activists dispute the notion that Clinton has to bare all, sooner or later. One consultant, speaking on background, says the public just doesn't support the strong-arm tactics of the Starr investigation - compelling testimony from Lewinsky's mother is Exhibit A - and would rather see the matter put to rest.

"I think the public has concluded that whatever happened here is first of all not worth pursuing further, and second, they think that Bill Clinton is doing a good job and should remain president," says the Democrat, who has no connection to the president. "It will take a very clear, very compelling, very unambiguous set of facts to shake that conclusion. I don't see that on the horizon."

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