'You're a very damaged human being'

THE PEOPLE'S PANEL

The voice of the people: An ongoing group discussion about Bill Clinton, his tormentors and the national drama

September 17, 1998

Face it, he's Topic A in the national conversation -- our beleaguered, our ridiculed, our humiliated-to-the-gills, bad boy president. So we decided to gather a few people in a room to see where the talk might lead us.

A rabbi came from Howard County, along with a Democrat from Reisterstown who sells real estate. A 20-something guy from Columbia took a night off from practice with his New Age-rock band. Baltimore's best-known painter of window screens - it's a provincial art form, hon - put down her brushes for the evening. A young CPA from Howard County fought rush-hour traffic on two Beltways; he even shut off his cell phone for two hours. A baby-boom, lifelong Baltimorean found a seat at the table, and a college student rode in from Westminster.

The exchange was sometimes heated, sometimes peppered with embarrassed laughter. But everyone came away - what? - enriched by what their fellow panelists had to say. And, for that reason, they all professed to be willing to gather again - and again - as we thrash our way through this current mess in the nation's life. We talked mostly about the president this time. More on Monica, Hillary and Kenneth Starr next week, when we hit the kibitz room at Attman's Deli on Lombard Street. Shall we begin?

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Moderator Dan Rodricks: If Bill Clinton were your brother, if you could sit one-on-one with him, what would you tell him today?

Rabbi Martin Siegel: I'd tell him, "You've hurt a lot of people, and you've got to make it up to them. You've got to show that you are willing to make amends to those people who you've damaged, not just make confessions that help save your job. If you're really going to get over this, you've got to talk to Monica Lewinsky and tell her that you're sorry because you hurt her very badly ... and a lot of other people. Do something, don't just talk about it."

Rodricks: Who's on that list, besides Monica?

Siegel: He's also damaged the country, and he's got to try to do some sort of penance for the country - maybe take a job in a shelter for battered women - and not where it's self-serving but where he's doing something that shows he truly is over it, that he has remorse and is willing to serve in such a way that shows, "I'm not the big clever president who's going to save my job through this. I'm a human being who's done something wrong, and I've got to make it up."

Elayne Smith (lifelong Baltimorean and administrator of a counseling center): I'd tell him he's a good human being, but he's done some stupid things. I think he owes people an apology. I also think he needs counseling.

Bobby Knatz (Democratic pol): I'd say, "Bill, look, you have superb intelligence, Rhodes scholar. Who in the world came up with the decision not to settle the Paula Jones case?"

Rodricks: You'd go back over that ground?

Knatz: I'd say, "Look, you've made a mistake, you're in the soup here real good. But I believe you're on the right track. You're

offering contrition, you're saying your actions have been indefensible, you're apologizing to your family, to the American public. You've asked for forgiveness."

Siegel: We can't be sure this asking forgiveness is not self-serving. It's an admission that he's done something wrong, a positive step. But as his brother, someone who cares about him, I want to see him heal himself from whatever is causing this kind of behavior. "There's some emptiness in your soul that this behavior is a manifestation of, and you've got to get at that. The heart of your being is touched by this. This isn't about saving your job. This is about saving your life!"

Knatz: I would take a more practical approach. (Turning to Siegel). It wouldn't be as philosophical ...

Siegel: (Laughter) What can I do?

Knatz: ... and that is, "The American people have elected you president" - are we still on the brother kick, Mr. Media Man?

Rodricks: Yeah, yeah, just a little while longer.

Knatz: "The American people have elected you president twice, knowing that you had an active, generous sexual appetite. Look, Brother Bill, I like women, too, but I've got a responsible position in this corporation and I'm not going to mess it up because we have a strong corporate policy here that we don't fool around within the framework of our corporation. Now, Brother Bill, you've got a bigger corporation, you've got the United States of America."

Jason Wilson (musician and radio producer): I agree with Rabbi Siegel, but I would tell Clinton to continue to lead. "Continue to show that you can make decisions. Continue to show the people that you can do the job they elected you to do." I don't think he should dwell on apologies: I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

Knatz: I'd compliment him, too. I'd say, "I can't believe it, Brother Bill. If I were under that kind of pressure, I wouldn't know my name. And that certainly tells me, Brother Bill, that you have the ability to lead this country under tremendous pressure."

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