There's no easy way out for President Clinton

August 10, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The current fad notion here that President Clinton can resolve the Monica Lewinsky episode with a speech from the Oval Office is a pipe dream. There is no magic bullet for this one.

Politicians are by nature optimistic people, and they don't like to accept the idea that there are problems that are simply beyond an acceptable resolution. But there are just such situations, and this is one of them. It is far too late for a speech to make the difference.

The president obviously couldn't get away with simply insisting there was no sexual relationship between him and the young White House intern, which is his latest word on the subject, offered six months ago. Even if Mr. Clinton were telling the truth, it wouldn't be convincing until the nation heard from the grand jury convened by independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

The most widespread assumption, however, is that Mr. Clinton would be going on television to confess that he had lied about the sex question, to apologize to his family and friends and to ask Americans for their forgiveness of his behavior.

The theory of those advocating this mea culpa is that the American people are so sick of the whole stinking mess they would seize on the opportunity to put it behind them. And to accomplish that, they would Jordan essentially accept his apology and turn their attention back to more serious matters.

The implication is that an Oval Office speech on national television would take the whole matter off the front pages and the network news programs.

But we live in a litigious and querulous society. So it is not hard to imagine the new questions that would be raised even after an abject presidential confession.

Would he admit that he also attempted to dissuade Monica Lewinsky from telling? Did he enlist friends such as Vernon Jordan and trusted aides such as Betty Currie to help him? Why did he put them -- and dozens of others -- through the six months of the investigation and huge legal bills? Does the confession also apply to Kathleen Willey?

What about the Ken Starr investigation? Would a display of contrition by the president obviate the necessity of the special prosecutor's getting a presentment from a grand jury? Or writing a report to Congress? Would Mr. Clinton now be free of any danger of an impeachment proceeding in the House? What would be the political consequences? Would conservative Repub- Currie licans be constrained from attacking a "confessed perjurer" if Mr. Clinton said his testimony in the Paula Jones civil suit was not true? Would the president's statement be forthcoming enough to prevent Republicans from raising more questions about his candor? Would Democrats running for re-election be able to deal with questions about whether the Clinton speech was convincing?

The president could well have stymied the entire investigation if he had made in January the kind of dramatic speech he is being urged to deliver now. The voters have shown in one poll after another, and in one case after another, that they are willing to accept the fact that Mr. Clinton strays with women other than his wife so long as he delivers in his performance as president.

But Mr. Clinton offered that flat denial of a sexual relationship with "that woman, Miss Lewinsky" and he assured the nation he wanted the facts to come out "sooner rather than later." Those pieces of television tape have become almost as familiar as those of Ms. Lewinsky in her beret on the White House rope line.

So a mea culpa now also carries added taint because of all the months and expense of the special investigation and all the people who have been drawn into the issue as witnesses only because the president did not shut down the inquiry at the outset.

Politically, the saving grace for Mr. Clinton all along is that the voters have distinguished between his job performance and his personal conduct. Opinion polls consistently have given him high marks for his performance as the nation has continued to prosper. But they also have shown Americans have a low opinion of Mr. Clinton's personal qualities.

The concern for Democrats in the White House and elsewhere is that a point will be reached at which the disapproval of his behavior begins to color Americans' view of his performance.

Those who are advocating the mea culpa speech believe a bold stroke could forestall such a change. Mr. Clinton, they point out, is always at his best in such situations. But the notion of any speech, however artfully delivered, cleaning up this mess is a joke.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 8/10/98

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