Public's verdict remains to be seen Brief national address might mean more to future than testimony

President Confronts Crisis

August 18, 1998|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton sought to bring closure to the sex scandal that has engulfed his presidency by apologizing last night for misleading the country about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky.

At the same time, Clinton portrayed himself as a victim of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation. He said he had truthfully answered "questions no American citizen would ever want to answer," during a steamy afternoon spent facing prosecutors' questions.

But while Clinton's day of reckoning before a grand jury may be over, the Lewinsky matter isn't. Some politicians in Washington, including top White House advisers, think it could drag on well into next year and into the 2000 presidential campaign.

Much more remains to be known, despite Clinton's declaration that "now this matter is between me and the two people I love most, my wife and my daughter." That includes the details of Clinton's testimony, as well as the voluminous evidence that Starr has gathered in his investigation into whether Clinton took part in a broad effort to obstruct justice.

Ultimately, it will be the public's verdict on Clinton's behavior -- including his tacit admission that he lied to the nation about his relationship with Lewinsky -- that determines whether Starr's investigation becomes a full-fledged impeachment proceeding. Under the Constitution, only Congress can decide what constitutes an impeachable crime and whether the president should be removed from office for any misdeeds.

"It's not just law, it's politics . . . once it hits the House" where the impeachment process begins," remarked Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, who said he was deeply offended by Clinton's attack on Starr.

The speech was Clinton's latest attempt to short-circuit that investigative process and begin to put the Lewinsky matter behind him.

"It was masterful expression," said Charles O. Jones, a University of Wisconsin political scientist, who was struck by Clinton's "use of the bully pulpit of the presidency to protect himself. It was virtually a presidential declaration to pre-empt the process" of the investigation.

Designed as a coda to Clinton's secret grand jury testimony, the four-minute address may well mean as much to his future as the four hours he spent taking questions from prosecutors.

Members of Congress, as well as Clinton himself, now will closely monitor the public's reaction over the coming days and weeks. One sign of the cautious approach that other politicians are taking to Clinton's troubles was the reluctance of many senators and representatives of both parties to comment last night.

Political strategists and opinion analysts are similarly leery of forecasting the public's response, even though surveys have indicated since the scandal broke in January that most Americans don't want to see Clinton driven from office for lying about his private life.

In light of those results, several commentators saw Clinton's decision to admit that he had an inappropriate relationship with a 21-year-old female intern as largely a poll-driven strategy. His remarks closely tracked surveys that showed most Americans wanted a contrite statement from Clinton, while continuing to view Starr as a villain.

The fact that Clinton misled the country for months -- and may have committed perjury when he denied a sexual relationship with Lewinsky in sworn testimony in the Paula Jones case -- could make it difficult for the president to sustain his historically high 70 percent job approval rating, however.

Even First Lady Hillary Clinton said, when the investigation began in January, that if it were proven that her husband had an "adulterous liason" with Lewinsky, that "would be a very serious offense."

'Unpredictable public'

"This has been an unpredictable public, and we misjudged it in January," said pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center. "It can change its mind."

Of particular interest to analysts will be the reaction of Clinton's most loyal supporters, especially women.

"I don't think it's over," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of Claremont Graduate University in California. "The polls are telling him: as Hillary goes, so goes most of the women, and most of the country."

But, she added, the fact that Mrs. Clinton wasn't at her husband's side, as she was in the 1992 campaign when Clinton admitted on "60 Minutes" to problems in his marriage, "was telling."

Sen. Hatch predicted the polls would change, particularly if Starr delivers a toughly worded investigative report to Congress.

"I think when the American people start thinking it through and realize that Judge Starr is doing his job, and if his report is a devastating report, I don't think those polls are going to stay the same way," the Utah senator said.

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