By Peter Baker
In his third attempt to explain his behavior, Clinton again stopped short of saying flatly that he was sorry. He said he thought his Aug. 17 speech on live national television was clear enough despite criticism that he appeared more resentful than remorseful. The president said he has "asked to be forgiven" and spent "very valuable time" on vacation making amends to Hillary Rodham Clinton and their daughter Chelsea.
Clinton's comments came on the closing day of a summit meeting here with Russian President Boris Yeltsin that produced few tangible agreements about how to solve Russia's continuing economic crisis [Details, Page A43].
This latest attempt to put the Lewinsky saga behind him did little if anything to quell the unrest back in Washington, where political leaders of both parties said his new statement did not go far enough. If it was meant as an apology, said Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), "It was a failure."
The president's subdued tone today contrasted sharply with the barely controlled anger that laced his first statement, which he followed with more humble if elliptical remarks about the virtues of forgiveness at a Massachusetts church last Friday. However, the language he chose today made clear he has set limits on how far he will go in seeking absolution from the American people -- or his critics in Congress and the news media. And while he employed softer terms today, he did not retreat from his angry attack on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr for investigating his private life.
"I read it the other day again," Clinton said of his original speech, "and I thought it was clear that I was expressing my profound regret to all who were hurt and to all who were involved, and my desire not to see any more people hurt by this process and caught up in it."
Responding to questions from reporters at a joint news conference with Yeltsin, Clinton added that he wants to move on and believes the public does as well because the scandal "had consumed a disproportionate amount of America's time, money and resources and attention."
"All I wanted to say was I believe it's time for us to now go back to the work of the country and give the people their government back," he added.
The president knew he would be confronted on the Lewinsky scandal again here in Russia as he made himself available to answer questions from reporters for the first time since Aug. 17. Sitting at a table with Yeltsin, Clinton seemed unusually downcast as he waited for the subject to be raised. When it was, he answered softly, generally looking down rather than at the audience.
He had prepared his answer during the final five to 10 minutes of an hour-long prep session and aides made clear that he was determined not to grovel. Rather than offer a new, more apologetic variation on what he had said, Clinton today offered a new characterization of what he said two weeks ago at the White House.
"I have acknowledged that I made a mistake, said that I regretted it, asked to be forgiven, spent a lot of very valuable time with my family in the last couple of weeks and said I was going back to work," he said. "I believe that's what the American people want me to do and based on my conversations with leaders around the world, I think that's what they want me to do and that is what I intend to do."
That represented a careful revision of what the original statement actually said. At that time, Clinton did acknowledge "a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible" and after admitting that he "misled people," he added, "I deeply regret that."
Yet in those remarks he did not ask forgiveness and he did not express regret "to all who were hurt and to all who were involved," as he suggested he had today. Instead, he said the investigation has "hurt too many innocent people" but blamed that on Starr.
In the Senate today, Democrats seemed no more impressed than Republicans by the president's latest attempt to put the Lewinsky matter behind him, with some arguing he was doing himself more harm than good by dragging out his response.
Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) said, "If he interpreted it as an apology, it would seem to constitute an apology," but then added, "It wouldn't work in my family."
Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), one of the president's strongest Democratic critics on the issue, argued that Clinton still has to "rebuild credibility with the American people" and said he had not done "nearly enough" for him. Asked what was enough, he said, "I suppose I'll know it when I see it." Can Clinton "still govern and be credible overseas?" he asked. "It's still an open question."
The response from Republicans was tinged with ridicule. "My reaction is he still doesn't get it," said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Connie Mack (Fla.). "He's just reminding people of what they didn't like about his first statement."
With both of Clinton's statements, "the one word that came to my mind . . . is Nixonian," said Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah). Both presidents said "we need to put this behind us" and neither "admitted to or apologized for anything that was not already proven."
Clinton's confession that he had an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky and "misled people, including even my wife," has proved to be more of a political problem than pacifier since he delivered it following his historic testimony to a grand jury investigating whether he committed perjury or obstruction of justice in the Paula Jones case.
While White House aides are convinced the general public was relatively satisfied and wants to hear no more from Clinton about his extramarital relationship, the defiant tone in Clinton's four-minute speech has undermined his support in Washington, where Starr may soon send an impeachment report to Congress.
Presidential advisers tried to get Clinton to offer a more contrite statement. The closest he came before today was a sermon-like talk at a church on Martha's Vineyard, when he spoke mostly in the third person about the need to forgive those who wrong you when asking for forgiveness yourself. Aides said that Clinton has made clear that, while he believes he may have spoken too angrily on Aug. 17, he is not prepared to go any further than he already has in expressing contrition.
White House officials readily acknowledge that the president still has significant repair work to undertake with angry members of Congress. But they said they believe that the way to do this is for Clinton to mend fences with individual lawmakers, as he has been doing in numerous phone conversations in recent weeks.
Hillary Clinton, who spent most of the two weeks since the statement with the president in seclusion during their Martha's Vineyard vacation, traveled with him to Moscow and appeared with him Tuesday at a local school ceremony and a formal dinner in the evening, but seemed distant at times. Today, after hosting a roundtable of Russian women, she left Moscow to head to Belfast a day ahead of her husband, who was to leave early Thursday. So by the time of the news conference, the first lady was no longer in town.
While they knew it would be embarrassing for Clinton to be questioned on such a sensitive and personal matter while overseas, White House aides also recognized that today's news conference could provide a politically useful backdrop, making reporters appear unpatriotic for raising the subject while the president represents his nation abroad.
Indeed, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), one of four members of Congress who accompanied Clinton to Russia, later confronted Reuters reporter Laurence McQuillan at the U.S. Embassy and loudly berated him for asking the president if he felt in retrospect that the tone of his original speech "didn't quite convey the feelings that you have."
"Speaking as an American, I'm outraged," Hoyer told McQuillan. The news media, he added, should "drop its obsession" with Lewinsky because the public does not care.
Many of the Russians who saw or met with Clinton during his two-day stay here seemed befuddled by the controversy stemming from his sex life. Yeltsin sat blank-faced as his counterpart was forced to address the matter in his presence. And if Clinton did not win any converts at home today, he did at least pick up one admirer during his visit here.
Dmitri Ayatskov, governor of the Saratov region, was among a group of officials who met with the president this afternoon at Spaso House, the U.S. ambassador's residence. "I envy Monica Lewinsky," Ayatskov told reporters as he left. "Clinton is a great guy."
Staff writers Helen Dewar and John F. Harris in Washington contributed to this report.
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