A President Baring the Soul And Daring the Prosecutor
By Dan Balz
No president has ever been forced to address such personal issues in a nationally televised address, and President Clinton last night went further than he ever has in taking responsibility for his private behavior and expressing regret for pain he has caused his family. "I misled people, including even my wife," he said. "I deeply regret that."
But this was no mea culpa speech. It was a Clinton the country has seen before when he faced a political crisis, a Clinton as defiant as he was contrite. Having bared his soul, he asked the country to take his side in a bitter political battle that has convulsed Washington for the past seven months. In that sense, the tone of his speech represented one of the biggest gambles of his presidency.
The president's advisers hoped the speech would mark the beginning of the end of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation. But in his sharp criticism of the intrusiveness of Starr's investigation, the president may have guaranteed that there can be no early ceasefire in a war that already has taken a terrible toll on the country.
"We've been through seven months of hell with this issue and it's affected every branch of the government," former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta said last night. "It's weakened the presidency, it's undermined confidence in the judicial branch, particularly the independent counsel. It's also produced gridlock in the Congress in terms of legislation. I think it's time to heal this country."
But others outside the White House held out little hope that the end of Starr's investigation will come as quickly as Clinton's supporters hope. Clinton must await the findings of Starr's investigation and the possibility of impeachment proceedings in Congress if Starr produces evidence that Clinton committed perjury in his Paula Jones deposition last January or that he obstructed justice in trying to cover up his relationship with Lewinsky.
The fact that the president refused to answer all questions during his grand jury testimony and that his advisers will now dare the independent counsel to pursue intimate details of Clinton's private life sets up the next phase of the battle.
Even in a moment of contrition, the president's speech signaled a familiar strategy last night: renewed attacks on Starr's investigation that were designed to play to a scandal-weary public. White House officials believe most Americans are anxious for the scandal to be over. The polls have told them that for months.
Their hope is to reduce the Starr investigation to matters of sex and whether Clinton lied about a sexual relationship. If they succeed, they believe it will be virtually impossible for Congress to embark on impeachment hearings.
"They are singularly focused on the politics at the moment," a congressional Democrat said of the mood of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, "and the politics is: If some 70 percent of the public doesn't want to know about this, who are they to raise it?"
But the same person acknowledged that what could force congressional action is clear evidence of obstruction of justice or subornation of perjury. That won't be known until Starr's report lands on Capitol Hill, perhaps in early September, and both Congress and the public begin to absorb its contents.
Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said the way "to get his presidency on track is to get this behind him and to go after those issues" that the American people wants solved, from health care to education to Social Security. "His speech is a beginning," Romer said.
But things may not be so simple. Energy expended on a continuation of partisan warfare between the White House and the independent counsel could continue to sap the administration's strength and diminish Clinton's ability to focus the country on the issues his advisers believe are the route to his political salvation.
Beyond that question of putting the Starr investigation behind him is the larger question of the president's political rehabilitation.
With his leadership shattered by a credibility crisis of his own making, Clinton faces the most daunting challenge of his political career as he attempts to rescue the final years of his presidency and his reputation in history.
Rarely has a political leader with such lofty approval ratings been confronted with the reality now before the president. Already a lame duck, his powers limited by the Republican Congress, Clinton hit the lowest point of his presidency yesterday when he acknowledged he had lied to the American people in January with his unequivocal denial of a sexual relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky.
One overriding question is whether Clinton's moral authority has been damaged permanently by this scandal, despite his effort to ask forgiveness last night. "It is a very big question of whether he can ever have the voice he once had," said presidential historian Michael R. Beschloss.
The consequences of that could be enormous, from how well he will be able to deal with the Saddam Husseins of the world to whether he can work successfully with a GOP-controlled Congress.
Beschloss held out one historical parallel that offered Clinton some hope for the rest of his presidency: the example of former President Ronald Reagan. During the Iran-contra scandal that hit in the sixth year Reagan was in office, many declared his presidency over. Instead, Reagan emerged to help produce the most memorable accomplishment of his presidency, an end to the Cold War.
"It's possible that you could devise a scenario that since the core of Clinton's authority is political management, not character, there is some way he can tunnel through this [crisis] and get on to the two last years and show presidential leadership. But that depends on how people react [to last night's speech] and what they hear about his testimony and what is in the Starr report."
Clinton must not simply put the scandal behind him. "Trust is the coin of the realm," said presidential biographer Robert Dallek. "If you don't have trust, how can you govern effectively. It's water dripping on a stone. It leaves him in a terribly weakened position, and I think it strengthens the Republicans."
Beyond the issue of trust is the matter of ridicule. Clinton's behavior has opened him up to ridicule not only in this country but around the world. He has become the butt of jokes about his personal life on everything from the Jay Leno and David Letterman shows to a stand-up comic who appeared at the National Governors' Association meeting two weeks ago. One speech will do little to wipe away the image Clinton has created, and the impact it has had on his presidency.
Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said a single speech rarely pulls a political leader out of crisis Richard M. Nixon's "Checkers" speech being one exception to that rule. Instead, Baker said, Clinton must go through "the repentance-sinner stage" over a period of time to win back the trust of the American people.
"Most Americans are acutely aware of temptation and the predisposition of humans to sin and the imperfection of the human soul," he said. "I think if he [Clinton] draws on those mystical chords, he would be on his strongest ground."
Clinton's Democratic allies discount the dire suggestions that the president may have trouble reestablishing his leadership. "My personal belief is that we tend to write off the strength of a president too easily," said Al From, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
From said Clinton has "incredible support for his policies" and has "always delivered" on "big things he's promised." From said the president will have two big opportunities to refocus his presidency in the coming months, first with the commission on Medicare that is due to report later in the year and by spearheading efforts to reform Social Security. "I don't think this presidency is over by a long shot," he said.
But a Republican from a previous administration cautioned that Clinton may not enjoy the strength needed to carry out such challenges. "The question is whether those in the political process congressmen and senators will abide by his wishes and believe in what he is saying," this Republican said. "There are many who would prefer to stand on the sidelines because they don't know whether or not he can restore his credibility."
Few politicians have proven as resilient as this president, and there are strengths to draw on as he begins to rebuild. One is the economy, despite the current wobbles in the stock market and the Russian and Asian problems. "He has to tie everything to his strength, which is the buoyancy of the economy, of the country," Dallek said. "It's got to be the linchpin of what he does as he goes forth, but it's not easy."
Others believe he needs a fresh face on his administration, an infusion of talent from outside the White House to signal to the American people that he is beginning anew. Others said he must do more than admit he misled the country and express his regret, that he must truly signal a break with the patterns of his past.
The president retains his rhetorical gifts, his ability to connect with ordinary voters and a determination to carry on in the face of adversity. But the Lewinsky investigation represents the most difficult ordeal of his presidency. Even if what he said yesterday helps to put the Starr investigation behind him a big if it may complicate his desire to restore his strength as president.
Presidents, Beschloss said, must be able to rally the American people at moments of crisis and to ask sacrifice to accomplish great goals. "There is a possibility," he said, "that what was happening [yesterday] will mute that voice and make it much less possible for him to do that."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company