The Imperiled Presidency

The Imperiled Presidency

On Friday, just after 9:30 in the morning, the president of the United States, his skin splotched from stress and his eyes puffy from lack of sleep, stood before 106 religious leaders assembled in the East Room of the White House and donned his reading glasses. At 52 years of age, Bill Clinton remains unconventionally handsome, and he is vain about his appearance, particularly in front of the cameras. But this speech was too important to be ad-libbed, and Clinton wrote it in advance-staying up until 4 a.m. to do so-and so he put on his glasses and read what he'd written faithfully in a last-ditch attempt to get it right.

"I agree with those who have said that in my first statement after I testified I was not contrite enough," Clinton said, referring to his Aug. 17 testimony before the Whitewater grand jury about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky. "I don't think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned."

Thus did Clinton embark on one of the most painfully personal speeches ever delivered by a sitting American president. But Clinton did much more in that speech than apologize. He laid out the road map of his survival strategy, one that reveals how he plans to fight to save his presidency-and where he plans to take the nation in the process.

First, Clinton will continue to personally accept blame for what he did, acknowledging lapses of both judgment and morality-even repeating his apologies if necessary. Second, the president will authorize his lawyers to continue to defend him as zealously as they can. This will entail even more criticism of Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr, firm denials of perjury, hair-splitting arguments on what constitutes sex and the repeated assertion that hiding an improper sexual affair is simply not an impeachable offense. Finally, Clinton will re-focus his energies on performing the substantive duties of his office. The theory behind this notion is basic: keep Clinton's approval rating so high that Congress is afraid to take him on.

"That is the plan," said incoming White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart. "The third part is the most important-and the most important to him. If he took his eye off the ball, if he stopped doing what the voters elected him to do, that's when people would lose faith in him."

The Apology

There are many, of course, who will receive anything Clinton has to say on this matter with abiding skepticism. That's because the truth, let alone contrition, has had to be yanked out of this man painstakingly, and has come only after he was cornered. Are his expressions of remorse sincere? Does he truly understand the harm he has caused others with his behavior toward Lewinsky-and by the web of lies he constructed to keep it secret? Are his expressions of shame just more poll-tested spin?

These are legitimate questions. At the same time, it must be said that in that extraordinary session with the ministers in the East Room, Clinton, at long last, manfully uttered the words the nation had been waiting to hear.

"It is important to me that everybody who has been hurt know that the sorrow I feel is genuine: first and most important, my family; also my friends, my staff, my Cabinet, Monica Lewinsky and her family, and the American people," Clinton said. "I have asked all for their forgiveness. But I believe that to be forgiven, more than sorrow is required . . . "

Clinton went on to list what atonement requires of him. First, "genuine repentance," which he described as a determination to change his ways. Also, submitting himself to divine guidance, to "what my Bible calls a `broken spirit,' to an understanding that I must have God's help to be the person that I want to be." And, he added, he must demonstrate "a willingness to give the very forgiveness I seek; a renunciation of the pride and anger which cloud judgment, lead people to excuse and compare and to blame and complain."

Afterward, the ministers were impressed. So were church leaders across the country. Even the rabbi for the Lewinsky family, David Wolby of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, mustered words of support. "Sometimes it's precisely such moments of despair that enable somebody, at least in the Jewish tradition, to elevate themselves beyond anything they imagine they could be," Wolby said.

Among political professionals in Washington, however, a nagging feeling of a different sort was evinced by Clinton's East Room speech: It underscored the perception that in the Lewinsky matter it wasn't only Clinton's sense of right and wrong that failed him, but his judgment and his political instincts as well. Not just this year, beginning with the famous Jan. 26 finger-pointing declaration "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," and not just on Aug. 17, when he defiantly and grudgingly acknowledged a relationship with her "that was not appropriate," then spent the rest of his address attacking Ken Starr. No, not just then: Clinton exhibited a loss of moral direction and judgment from the very beginning, from the first time he indulged in a tryst with a vulnerable and flirtatious young female employee.

There are those, even in Congress, who are squeamish about the graphic sexual details in Starr's 453-page report. But what comes through in its pages is that Clinton's greatest sin is not, say, in using a cigar as a sex toy. It is in toying with the affections of such an immature, troubled and insecure young woman. It is evident now that Lewinsky not only came to believe she was in love with the president, but convinced herself that he loved her as well-and that this exploitive relationship did her great harm. This seems, finally, to have registered with Clinton. On Friday, he acknowledged that he owed her an apology. And in the most moving passage of that speech, he also volunteered that he had set a miserable example for the nation's most impressionable citizens.

"The children of this country can learn in a profound way that integrity is important and selfishness is wrong, but God can change us and make us strong at the broken places," he said. "I want to embody those lessons for the children of this country, for that little boy in Florida who came up to me and said that he wanted to grow up and be president and to be just like me. I want the parents of all the children in America to be able to say that to their children."

In the end, though, this speech may not be enough to save Bill Clinton's presidency. The reason is that his timing was off. The tone of Friday's talk would have been perfect on Aug. 17. The Aug. 17 address, with its reluctant admission and its attack on Starr, would have worked well in January. And so, in the end, Clinton's vow to atone, his apology to Lewinsky, his willingness to shoulder the blame may have come too late.

"I don't have to tell you," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde told his colleagues on Friday, "that the theater of operations has shifted from the White House and the grand jury to this chamber."

The Legal Fight

Even before they saw Starr's report, Clinton's attorneys attacked it in a report of their own. To Clinton lawyer David E. Kendall, the villain of the Lewinsky affair was, all-too-predictably, not Bill Clinton, but Ken Starr, who put "salacious allegations" in his report merely to "humiliate, embarrass and politically damage the president."

By Saturday, Clinton's legal team, led by Kendall and White House Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff, issued a new rebuttal. As a legal filing, this 42-page report is a curious document. It alleges, or implies, among other things, a) that Starr's motives are suspect because he included too much sex in his report (not that Clinton had too much sex in the Oval Office); b) that Clinton did not commit perjury when he denied, repeatedly and under oath, a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, even though he has apologized for that relationship; c) that even if Clinton had lied under oath, perjury relating to private conduct, instead of a matter of state, is never an impeachable offense; d) that even though Clinton admitted lying to his top aides about Lewinsky, knowing they were poised to repeat his denials to the grand jury, this cannot be construed as obstruction of justice; e) that perjury "may not rest on the testimony of a single witness."

All of these assertions seem dubious. Take the last one: Kendall implies that the question of perjury comes down to Clinton's word against Lewinsky's. This is inaccurate; Starr's report goes to great lengths to offer corroboration of Lewinsky's account. That evidence ranges from the testimony of numerous Secret Service agents who saw her alone with Clinton to friends and therapists to whom she confided the affair in detail, White House logs establishing when she and Clinton were alone together in the Oval Office and phone records showing that events she remembered had occurred at the times in question.

Moreover, some of the claims in the White House rebuttal seem likely to backfire. "The president has acknowledged and apologized for an inappropriate sexual relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, so there is no need to describe that relationship in ugly detail," the rebuttal says. This assertion suggests that Clinton's apology was a tactical decision, motivated by a desire to foil Starr.

In addition, in making this claim, the Clinton side is ignoring one of the more startling revelations in Starr's report, namely that prosecutors didn't even ask Lewinsky about all the sordid details of the sex she had with Clinton until after the president testified on Aug. 17 before the grand jury. Clinton alienated Starr-and Lewinsky-by insisting he had provided "legally accurate," if misleading, answers to Paula Corbin Jones' lawyers about his relationship with Lewinsky.

As far as the "legally accurate" claim, it rests on the goofy contention-repeated several times by Clinton's lawyers as recently as Sunday-that fellatio does not count as a sex act as far as the recipient of the act is concerned. This is a claim that defies common sense, infuriates women and ignores the context of the Jones litigation because the sex act described by Lewinsky is the very behavior Paula Jones alleged Clinton tried to encourage. Finally, according to Lewinsky's clear and graphic testimony, Clinton's assertion under oath before the grand jury that he never touched her sexually is a lie anyway.

Inside the White House, even some of Clinton's own political advisers found Kendall and Ruff's rebuttal too crafty, but by Saturday, those advisers were nevertheless expressing a cautious optimism, primarily because the Starr report contained no big surprises. "It had no new bombshells," one White House aide said. "And we live in a bombshell world." The other source of optimism was the sense-it was a rumor, really-that without damaging new revelations, and with Clinton's approval rating holding, it was going to be easier to attract new legal talent to help with the public relations aspect of this scandal. "We'll get more takers," said one official. "There'll be Democrats out there who see themselves as the next Howard Baker."

On Saturday, the president's advisers persuaded Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., to come to the White House to say Starr had not landed a knockout punch. But his heart hardly seemed in it. Sen. Robert Kerrey of Nebraska may prove a better barometer: Asked point-blank if he was angry at the president, Kerrey did not mention Starr or employ arcane legal defenses. He said, "Yes," and invoked memories of all the top generals and admirals cashiered for less serious sexual transgressions during the Clinton years.

"There was a betrayal here," Kerrey said. "If just what the president stipulated is true . . . I mean he's commander in chief, for God's sake." A survey done for ABC News showed that the worm may be turning a bit in public opinion as well. Nearly 60 percent of those polled now believe Clinton broke the law in the Lewinsky affair, up from 42 percent just three weeks ago.

The People's Business

Ah, yes, the public opinion polls. Eventually, in the Clinton White House, all roads lead here. And when the president and his aides speak in messianic terms about Clinton getting back to work on issues, they know they have the public on their side. For despite the tawdriness of the current scandal, Clinton remains respected by a majority of voters in this country for his work on the budget, other domestic issues and foreign policy-and when he talks about getting back to what he was elected to do, he strikes a chord with the electorate.

A Gallup Poll done this weekend for CNN shows Clinton's job-approval rating holding steady at an impressive 62 percent. Moreover, Americans appear to have a certain savvy about how poll information is being used. Asked in the same poll if they think Clinton should be removed from office, voters say no by almost exactly the same majority: 63 percent to 32 percent. Asked if Clinton should resign and turn the presidency over to Vice President Al Gore, again voters say no by 62 percent to 34 percent. The meaning is clear: Americans are not ready for impeachment. Not yet, anyway.

White House officials believe that if they can keep Clinton's approval rating above 50 percent in the coming week, as the Starr report sinks in, and then for the following six weeks until the elections, they probably will have weathered the crisis. "It's all contingent on where we are after this weekend," said one.

The president and his aides are not just sitting and hoping. They have returned to the proven methods of the 1995-96 campaign, as Clinton mounts what is really his third campaign for the presidency. At an event on Friday night, three warm-up speakers, including Gore, spoke of Clinton's "courage," a cribbed device from the 1996 train ride. More ominious for the GOP, Clinton's domestic policy advisers are planning to ambush the Republicans on the upcoming budget process. "You can pick some fights if you want to," said one White House aide. "It worked for us before."

"For once, the schedule works for us-we've got the whole appropriations process in the next five weeks," said Lockhart. "If they don't want to make the investments in education we think are necessary, we'll veto them. If they want to include anti-environmental riders to everything, we'll veto them, too."

In his Saturday radio address, Clinton foreshadowed this strategy, although he played the good cop. After lauding Congress for its bipartisan approach to fighting teenage drug use, Clinton rattled off a dozen other issues he'd like to see addressed, ranging from smaller classroom sizes to investing in the International Monetary Fund. The quick speech was a sort of one-minute-steak version of his now-forgotten, but at the time well-received, 1998 State of the Union address. His advisers seem to feel that if they can just keep Clinton in office long enough to deliver his 1999 State of the Union, everything will turn out all right.

In the meantime, the staff knows Clinton has to be engaged in policy-making and politicking, not just for the public's sake, but for his own. The recent Ireland trip, designed to put the president in front of adoring crowds from Armagh to Ballybunion, became bogged down in yet more Lewinsky questions and contested apologies. The constant presence at his side of his preoccupied and scowling wife didn't seem to help. In Limerick, however, Hillary Rodham Clinton's mood suddenly seemed to lift. A steady rain stopped as soon as the president ascended the lecturn, and a sun emerged so bright that Mrs. Clinton donned sunglasses. She looked to the town's mayor, pointed to her husband and that rare, shining Irish sun and laughed aloud, gesturing as if to say, "Do you believe this lucky so-and-so? You can't keep him down."

In Washington a week later, it was evident that, whatever she had been going through, Mrs. Clinton was back on the team, at least in public. On Friday night, she sat beaming at her husband as he was praised by Gore, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and special Irish peace envoy George J. Mitchell at a raucous reception on the South Lawn for Irish-American supporters.

As for Clinton, he seemed to have a spring in his step, too, but there was something else, something that has long been lacking in this president: a touch of humility. Clinton drank in the energy of the crowd as if he were parched. "Hillary and I have been over there just lapping this up," he said. "We don't want this to end." But then Clinton did something that doesn't come easily for him. He deflected the praise lavished on him, and spent his entire 13-minute speech thanking others, including staff members and the audience itself, and he gave most of the credit on the American side for Irish peace to George Mitchell, even calling him affectionately "St. George."

That very morning, Clinton had ruminated aloud that it may have been a "blessing" for him to have been brought down so low. "If my repentance is genuine and sustained," he said, "and if I can maintain both a `broken spirit' and a strong heart, then good can come of this for our country as well as for me and my family."

Ten hours later on the South Lawn, Clinton's grace in the face of adulation raised two questions: Did we finally get, in the midst of all this sordidness, the president we deserve? And, if so, is it too late?