“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 book he co-wrote with his wife, Mary Matalin, who had been George Bush’s political director: “During the early days of the Doggett campaign there were thousands of meetings . . . These meetings would go on for two, sometimes three hours. And I noticed there was this reddish-blond-haired kid who, while everyone else was pontificating, would just sit there at a word processor banging out statements . . . I said, ‘This guy’s a keeper. I’m gonna want to work with him again.’”

Begala enrolled in law school at UT but took so much time off to join Carville on campaigns that it would be almost six years before he graduated. Before he met Begala, Carville could never win a race; now he couldn’t lose one. The two men have different personalities—Carville is hot, Begala is cool—but the same attitudes about politics. “He is so profound,” Begala said. “He knows what the folks around the nail bin are going to be thinking about and how to reach them. Not with liberal guilt. He’ll say, ‘We don’t have a person to waste; it doesn’t make sense not to use everybody.’ He’s the least greedy person in the business. We never had a formal partnership agreement. Somebody told us we needed one, and we had one drafted. I never read it, never signed it, and never had an argument about money.”

Their breakthrough victory was a 1991 Senate race in Pennsylvania in which Harris Wofford came from 47 points behind to defeat former U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh. “The polls said that jobs was the big issue,” Begala recalled, “but Harris said that the thing he kept hearing about was health care. Once you thought about it, it jumped out at you. Nobody was addressing it.” Wofford’s victory catapulted health care into a national issue and Begala and Carville into the top rank of consultants. They joined forces with Clinton in 1991, and when Clinton made up ground in the New Hampshire primary to finish second to Paul Tsongas, Begala christened him the Comeback Kid. The implication was that Clinton had “won” the primary by coming in second to someone from neighboring Massachusetts. It was great spin because the phrase did all the work.

After the election, Begala went to work at the Democratic National Committee but fell out of favor at the White House—first because he wasn’t a policy wonk, then because he was a source for The Agenda, Bob Woodward’s unflattering account of policymaking in the first two years of the Clinton administration. He returned to Austin in 1995 and joined Public Strategies, an issue-oriented political consulting firm, where he did work for Southwest Airlines and the San Antonio Spurs. Then, in the summer of 1997, he was asked to return to the White House as counselor to the president. He and his wife, Diane, whom he had met at UT, had just bought a house and were expecting their third child. “I didn’t take it seriously at first,” he remembered, “but they said I would be advising the president. The conventional wisdom was that Clinton was out of gas, so he wanted to aggressively push an agenda for the post—balanced budget world. My focal point would be the State of the Union.”

The speech was set for January 27. Then, on January 21, the Lewinsky tapes hit the front pages. “There was such a rush to judgment,” Begala said. “It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Network anchors were standing on the north lawn, saying the president was going to resign. CNN reported that the staff was contemplating resignation.”

In that surreal atmosphere Begala went on Meet the Press. Carville, Mr. Hot, would appear on TV later to talk about how Ken Starr was obsessed with sex, but what was needed now was Mr. Cool. The hands stayed clasped, the voice stayed calm, the eyes never wavered as Begala got his message out—that Starr makes a million dollars a year from tobacco interests, that witnesses have accused Starr’s office of trying to intimidate them into testifying falsely, that the investigation is “out of control.”

This was the key exchange:

Russert: The president has always said he wanted the most ethical administration in history.

Begala: Absolutely.

Russert: Why won’t he come forward and level with the American people?

Begala: He said these are false charges, and a fair investigation will prove that. Now, part of the reason this investigation is not fair is because of the leaks. And I need to ask you, Has NBC News been the recipient of illegal leaks from Ken Starr?

There was a brief but fatal pause before Russert answered: We don’t talk about whether leaks come from the White House, from Ken Starr, from the State Department, from the Pentagon. We do our job, and we do it well.

After spending the entire program accusing the White House of ducking the issue, Russert had done the same.

“ALL RIGHT, I SAID TO BEGALA.” I’ll ask the question. What was the relationship between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky?”

“In my view, the president has answered that,” he said. “He was asked if they had had sex and whether he had asked anyone to lie. He said no. Those are the only two questions that matter.”

“Why doesn’t the public seem to care about this?” I asked.

“Because it doesn’t affect their lives. If Rush Limbaugh’s dream came true and the president had to resign, it wouldn’t educate a single child, it wouldn’t create a single job. In fact, it would do the opposite. They don’t think of character as having to do with his private life. Only he and God can judge that. They see his character come through in the way that he keeps his focus on his job. They see that when he says, ‘I’ll fix the economy and reduce crime.’ He keeps his word.”

The success of the White House strategy—pioneered and implemented by Begala—has been to personalize and politicize what had previously been a legal matter. Recent events have given Starr the upper hand for the moment, but he remains, like his adversary, badly wounded, in many cases by his own hand. In challenging the president’s attorney-client privilege, in demanding the testimony of Secret Service agents, in subpoenaing the president, Starr has stretched the very fabric of constitutional government and its foundation of separation of powers. The issue now on the table is which man’s weaknesses are the greater threat to the nation.

“I used to think the investigation was all political,” Begala said. “Now I think it’s a case of too much power and too little accountability. Everything that has happened to Kenneth Starr has been his own doing, not mine.”