“A VERY SIMPLE QUESTION,” Tim Russert, the host of NBC’s Meet the Press, said to his guest, 36-year-old White House adviser Paul Begala. “What was the relationship between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky?”
Well, maybe not so simple. Two weeks before the February 8 telecast, the startling news had broken that Linda Tripp had secretly recorded—and turned over to independent counsel Kenneth Starr—conversations with Lewinsky in which the former White House intern had confided that she had had an affair with the president of the United States. The Lewinsky tapes contradicted sworn testimony Clinton had given in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, raising the prospect that he had committed perjury.
As Begala went on Meet the Press, Clinton’s presidency hung in the balance. Fourteen times Russert asked him some variation of his initial question about Clinton and Lewinsky. Fourteen times the former University of Texas student body president responded with pointed criticism of Starr. His answer to Russert’s “simple” question about the relationship moved the spotlight away from Clinton and onto Starr’s investigation, which he characterized as a “campaign of leaks and lies that frankly I think have a political ax to grind.” The best defense, Begala was proving, was a good offense. Try as he might, Russert could not rebuff his attack. “We’ll get to Ken Starr later,” the newsman pleaded at one point, “but let me go back to the president.” Not a chance. The exchange ended with Begala saying, “I believe, Tim, that Ken Starr has become corrupt, in the sense that Lord Acton meant when he said, ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’”
More than half a year later, that test of wills between journalist and presidential defender stands as the pivotal moment when the debate shifted from the investigation to the investigator. There’s no denying that with the grant of full immunity to Lewinsky, Clinton’s presidency is once again in peril—but the difference is that Starr’s character is now as much of an issue as Clinton’s. For that, the president has Begala to thank. His performance on Meet the Press cast doubt on the independent counsel’s independence, motives, and tactics. Starr’s legal ability to bring down a president remains intact, but his political ability to do so has been greatly diminished.
“I BELIEVE THAT POLITICS MATTERS,” Begala was telling me. “Politics determines whether we go to war, whether the economy goes up or down, whether crime is under control. Somebody said it’s the only game for grown-ups. You really ought to fight over it; that’s how important it is.”
He was sitting in what he calls “my conference room” in the Old Executive Office Building on the White House grounds, an ankle slung over a knee, revealing a handsome reptilian boot. (The conference room consists of two chairs in a corner of a not-large-enough room that also includes his desk and his secretary’s. Government may waste billions of dollars elsewhere, but it wasn’t lavishing money on office space for Paul Begala.) His hands were clasped with his fingers interlaced, just as they were throughout his eleven minutes on Meet the Press, giving him an appearance of outward calm that was contradicted by the intensity and vigilance of his wide, blue eyes. “This place can wear you out,” he said. “The last six months have been so intense. I love a partisan fight, but not the kind that is going on now. I don’t have to incarcerate my political opponents to win.”
“How did you get the political bug?” I asked him.
“At Court’s True-Value Hardware. I grew up in Missouri City, outside Houston, and worked at the hardware store in Stafford. The owners were civic leaders, and a lot of their relatives were politicians. The store was the political hub of the community. Folks would drop by to drink coffee around the nail bin. They were the most interesting people I had ever met—and the smartest. They knew everything about Fort Bend County. If a railroad crossing needed a gate, they knew about it, and they knew how to get it done. They were interested in people’s lives, not ideology. Nobody around the nail bin ever talked about a nuclear freeze.”
When Begala arrived at the University of Texas at Austin in 1979, campus politics was nonexistent, student government having been abolished by a referendum the year before he arrived. He helped bring it back in 1982 and ran for president, an office once held by, among other notables, John Connally. Three candidates were soon joined by a fourth: Hank the Hallucination, a character in Sam Hurt’s Daily Texan comic strip, who announced his candidacy in his own cartoon. Hank received enough write-in votes to win the election without a runoff, but in a subsequent strip, Hurt had him assassinated by a little girl who pointed her finger at him and said, “Bang!” (Hank had survived many previous attempts on his life; only an imaginary bullet, it turned out, could kill a hallucination.) Begala, who had finished third, won a runoff against the second-place finisher. Some of his friends from that era will swear that he dreamed up the assassination plot, but both victor and cartoonist deny any complicity.
After graduating from UT, Begala joined Lloyd Doggett’s campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1983. Doggett, now a congressman, won the Democratic primary but was routed by Phil Gramm in the general election. Two good things happened to Begala as a result of the otherwise disastrous race. One was that he was able to extract half of a joke that is a staple of his speeches: “When Lloyd Doggett got forty-two percent of the vote in 1984, we were idiots. When Bill Clinton got forty-three percent of the vote in 1992, we were geniuses.” The second thing was that he struck up a friendship with James Carville, then a down-on-his-luck political consultant, later his partner in helping Clinton win the White House. Carville told of his first encounter with Begala in All’s Fair, a