Somber president calls for `renewal'

`Profoundly sorry,' he thanks Americans for support, prayers

The Impeachment Verdict

February 13, 1999|By SUSAN BAER | SUSAN BAER,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A subdued and somber President Clinton -- showing no trace of jubilation -- said yesterday he was "profoundly sorry" for triggering the scandal of the last year and called for "reconciliation" in the wake of the vote allowing him to keep his job.

In a brief statement delivered in the Rose Garden soon after the Senate voted to acquit him on both articles of impeachment, the president avoided any glimmer of a smile or a gloat, and said he was "humbled and very grateful" for the support and prayers he's received from millions of Americans over the past year.

"Now I ask all Americans, and I hope all Americans -- here in Washington and throughout our land -- will rededicate ourselves to the work of serving our nation and building our future together," he said to a large throng of cameras and journalists. "This can be -- and this must be -- a time of reconciliation and renewal for America."

Clinton spent much of the morning composing the short statement, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said, and seemed careful to avoid any hint of defiance or vindication that could antagonize political opponents.

Two hours after the Senate vote, ending the more than yearlong saga that seriously threatened his presidency, the second chief executive to be impeached walked solemnly from the Oval Office to a podium in the roseless Rose Garden as much of his staff looked on.

He began his public statement, on the oddly warm and sunny winter day, with an expression of remorse similar to one he made before.

"I want to say again to the American people how profoundly sorry I am for what I said and did to trigger these events, and the great burden they have imposed on the Congress and the American people," Clinton said, occasionally biting his lip as he often does when delivering emotional remarks.

After reading his statement, he started to head back to the Oval Office but paused, and then returned to the microphone when a reporter asked whether he could "forgive and forget," a reference to his reported ire at Republican House members who tried to oust him.

"I believe any person who asks for forgiveness has to be prepared to give it," Clinton said, before walking back to the White House that will be his home for two more years.

There was much internal debate between Clinton and his aides yesterday over whether the president should appear on camera or merely respond to the Senate vote with a written statement.

The measured public response Clinton finally decided upon was in marked contrast to the more elaborate and defiant South Lawn ceremony several hours after his historic impeachment by the House in December.

That event included a show of support by more than 100 House Democrats who cheered the president. It drew the ire of some Republicans -- and later some Democrats -- who found it unseemly for Clinton to be holding what many of them dubbed a "pep rally" in the wake of impeachment.

Yesterday, the White House took pains to keep a lid on any signs of celebration, even though neither impeachment article received even a simple majority, much less the 67 votes needed to convict and remove the president.

"Given the circumstances of this matter that's gone on for this long, we can be relieved that it's over, but there's really nothing to celebrate," Lockhart said. "For most of us who have had to engage on this on a daily basis, relief is the most descriptive and accurate word that I can use."

In contrast, Clinton's lawyers couldn't contain their joy as they walked out of the White House and down the street for a celebratory lunch, skipping the president's statement.

"We are going to lunch. We will enjoy it. It feels really good," said David E. Kendall, as a small crowd outside the White House cheered the lawyers with applause and shouts of "Well done!"

Lockhart said Clinton did not watch yesterday's Senate votes. Instead, he was exercising in the White House residence when the Senate began its roll call vote of "guilty" or "not guilty." He then spent some time with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and some of her visiting friends.

Chief of staff John Podesta called the president after each vote to inform him of the results, including who voted which way. Clinton then continued work on a statement he had started drafting Thursday night.

In addition to his public remarks, the president called some Senate Democrats yesterday afternoon to thank them for their support and sent an e-mail message to his staff also expressing his gratitude.

"Your dedication and loyalty have meant more to me than you can ever know," Clinton wrote. He said the best way for him to show his appreciation was to "redouble my own efforts on behalf of the ideals we all share."

Although yesterday's vote brought an end to Clinton's most threatening political woes, his troubles springing from the Monica Lewinsky scandal are far from over. For one thing, he could still be indicted by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr when he leaves office or possibly before.

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