Puzzling question is not new one Promise once again is shadowed by his shortcomings

August 18, 1998|By Todd S. Purdum | Todd S. Purdum,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- On Jan. 20, 1997, as an ebullient Bill Clinton took the oath of office for the second term that he hoped would secure his place in history, he returned to a theme that had been at the core of his claim to be a new kind of Democrat, declaring: "Each and every one of us, in our own way, must assume personal responsibility, not only for ourselves and our families but for our neighbors and our nation."

Exactly one year later, Clinton learned that Kenneth W. Starr, the Whitewater independent counsel, was investigating accusations that the president had started a sexual relationship with a White House intern in 1995 and then tried to cover it up.

Had the man who won the presidency by speaking out for the people who "play by the rules" once more surrendered to a lifelong compulsion to bend and break them? Last night, in the most painfully personal public confession of his life, and perhaps in American political life, Clinton was forced to acknowledge, in tight and reluctant tones, that he had.

"I must take complete responsibility for all my actions, both public and private," the president said, adding that his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky was wrong and "constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on part for which I am solely and completely responsible."

How someone of such surpassing intellect and such protean political talents could indulge in such conduct at a time when he knew a special prosecutor was already scrutinizing his administration and when his own re-election still hung in the balance remains the most puzzling question about William Jefferson Clinton. But it is not a new question, and in some ways it was entirely predictable that this president should have come to this pass, his promise once again shadowed by his shortcomings.

For Clinton has always been convinced that he could outsmart, out-talk, out-charm and outlast any adversary, and very often, enough to confirm that conviction, he has. In the darkest days of the 1992 primaries, he dared to campaign on a platform of personal responsibility, despite widespread questions about his own marital fidelity, marijuana use and draft record, and widespread doubt that his answers were candid or complete. In his first term, he shifted ground so many times that even his best friends sometimes said they did not know where he stood.

Time and again in the risky running melodrama of his public life, Clinton has treated the truth as an a la carte menu.

On Jan. 21, as news of the accusations involving Lewinsky came out, Clinton told National Public Radio: "I don't know any more about it than I've told you, and any more about it, really, than you do."

Even last night, Clinton insisted that when he testified under oath in January that he had not had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, his answers were "legally accurate," though he added: "I did not volunteer information."

In the end, such sweeping elisions lie far beyond the ken of conventional political analysis. But professionals who have studied the arc of Clinton's life and career have suggested some answers.

"Most people wish to think well of themselves," wrote Stanley Renshon, a political scientist and psychoanalyst at New York University in his 1996 study of Clinton, "High Hopes." "However, Bill Clinton appears to have come to believe the best of himself and, either to avoid or discount evidence from his own behavior, that all is not as he believes it to be. He attributes to himself the most sincere and best of motives. His errors, when acknowledged, are the result of basically correct efforts gone temporarily awry, misunderstandings that, if one knew more of what he knew, would disappear or be mitigated, or else are attributable to naivete and inexperience."

His mother's son

Clinton may have come by his capacity for denial and compartmentalization naturally. They were among the qualities that allowed his widowed mother, Virginia Kelley, to persevere after Clinton's father died three months before he was born, and that allowed Clinton to make what most critics regarded as a splendid State of the Union address just days after the intern scandal broke.

"When bad things do happen, I brainwash myself to put them out of my mind," Kelley wrote in her autobiography, published after her death in 1994 under the president's review. "Inside my head, I construct an airtight box. I keep inside it what I want to think about and everything else stays behind the walls. Inside is white, outside is black: The only gray I trust is the streak in my hair."

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