Clinton Says 'I'm Sorry' for Lewinsky Affair
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 5, 1998; Page A01
DUBLIN, Sept. 4 President Clinton issued a new and direct apology today for having an affair with Monica S. Lewinsky and deceiving the nation about it, finally using the simple words he refused to utter on three previous occasions: "I'm sorry."
Clinton offered the more contrite language demanded by critics for nearly three weeks in an apparent effort to head off a run for the door by fellow Democrats a day after a longtime ally, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), took the Senate floor to denounce the president's behavior as "immoral" and deserving of a "public rebuke."
Until today, Clinton had said his actions were "wrong" and that he "regretted" them, but had steadfastly refused to take the advice of some advisers who had urged him to say explicitly that he was "sorry." Having decided to back down on that delicate wording today, he said it twice just to make sure the message was delivered and pleaded no contest to Lieberman's stinging judgment, as grim aides tried to contain the damage from the words of a respected lawmaker closely aligned with the president's political views.
"Basically, I agree with what he said," Clinton told reporters at a photo opportunity with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern here. "I've already said that I made a big mistake, it was indefensible and I'm sorry about it. So I have nothing else to say except that I can't disagree with anyone else who wants to be critical of what I have already acknowledged was indefensible."
Clinton declined to render an opinion on whether it was helpful for Lieberman to make such an address. "But there's nothing that he or anyone else could say in a personally critical way that -- I don't imagine -- that I would disagree with, since I have already said it myself, to myself," the president said. "And I'm very sorry about it."
The president's remarks were the fourth time he has addressed the matter starting with his Aug. 17 confession that he had an improper relationship with Lewinsky and "misled people, including even my wife." Yet as the political situation in Washington continues to deteriorate, aides said today Clinton is resigned to the prospect that he will have to speak out on it again publicly once he returns to the United States. While they said no plans were finalized, the president is scheduled to meet with leading clergy members at the White House on Friday, which could offer a political backdrop for a talk on redemption.
The fear at the White House is that more Democrats will follow Lieberman's lead. Sens. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) came to the floor after him Thursday and endorsed Lieberman's viewpoint.
Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), a strong early critic of Clinton's behavior and his Aug. 17 speech, said today that Lieberman's scorching criticism "pretty well reflected" his own thoughts as well and added that Clinton's effort today was still not enough. "Explanation rather than contrition is the key . . . not just saying he's sorry but adequately saying how it occurred so people can feel more comfortable about it," Feingold said in a telephone interview from Wisconsin. "What he has to answer is [how] he said one series of things and then changed his story about it. He's got to explain this."
Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee said they were unimpressed with Clinton's words of contrition, and will focus on examining any report from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. "This extended struggle for the president to come up with an apology will probably not be that relevant," said Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.). "It might have been more relevant if he had done it in the first place." Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) added, "When you're talking about a question of criminal conduct, saying sorry isn't enough."
But Lieberman late today told NBC News that the president's comments in Ireland were "another step" in what the senator called the "beginning of a healing process."
The text and tone of Clinton's explanations have preoccupied Washington since the president admitted during grand jury testimony and a subsequent national television address last month that he had intentionally created a "false impression" by denying his affair with Lewinsky and took responsibility for it.
While generally thought to be a success with the general public, that statement flopped inside the Beltway in the view of Clinton's own advisers because the bitter recriminations he expressed against Starr appeared to belie any acceptance of personal responsibility.
The president tried again with a sermon-like talk at a Martha's Vineyard church a week ago in which he talked about "forgiveness" mostly in the third person without directly asking for it himself. Then, at a Moscow news conference with Russian President Boris Yeltsin on Wednesday, he moved incrementally further, reinterpreting his previous remarks by asserting that in them he already had expressed "my profound regret to all who were hurt."
Clinton hoped to put the matter behind him at least for the rest of his six-day overseas trip, particularly as he visited here and Northern Ireland and basked in gratitude for helping to leverage the Good Friday peace agreement ending three decades of sectarian violence. But Lieberman forced it back on the agenda, rebuffing a request by White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles to wait until the president returned to U.S. soil.
Just as the senator got up to speak on the floor late Thursday, Clinton was arriving at Phoenix Park, the U.S. ambassador's residence in Dublin and, exhausted, went to bed within 15 minutes, according to aides. Senior officials traveling with Clinton said they did not tell him about Lieberman's remarks until they went out to the house this morning to brief him on his upcoming day.
Knowing he would be asked for a reaction at the photo opportunity, Clinton settled on how he would answer without much discussion among his advisers, officials said. "He pretty much told us then what he was going to say," said a top aide. "We didn't parse the words with him."
Clinton appeared relaxed and unbothered as he took questions alongside Ahern in the prime minister's office. He calmly accepted Lieberman's criticism without any rebuttal or tone of defensiveness, even brushing off questions about whether the Senate was an appropriate forum for the subject. "That's not for me to say," he answered. "I've known Senator Lieberman a long time, we've worked together on a lot of things and I'm not going to get into commenting on that one way or the other."
He also declined to say whether an official censure by Congress would be appropriate, since Lieberman did not directly propose one. "If that's not an issue, I don't want to make it one," Clinton said.
Clinton spoke privately with Lieberman before leaving for Russia on Monday, but did not say anything to assuage the senator's concerns, and aides said they were unsure whether he would try to call again before leaving Ireland on Saturday. Lieberman and Clinton have known each other since 1970 and teamed up to help nudge their party more toward the political center through the Democratic Leadership Council.
While Clinton said he agreed with Lieberman's remarks, the senator in fact took direct issue with the president's Aug. 17 claim that his affair was not the public's business, saying, "the reality is in 1998 that a president's private life is public."
The White House is being careful not to pass judgment too early on the idea of a congressional censure while the volatile political situation evolves. If the president or his allies were to signal acceptance of such a symbolic and nonbinding resolution, it might embolden Republicans to push further for impeachment. On the other hand, if Starr's report to Congress expected later this month proves to be as damaging as some advisers fear, then they want to have a compromise available to undercut an impeachment drive.
White House officials have given up any hope that Clinton can put the matter behind him and said he will have to speak out again on the subject.
"The president clearly does not believe that one conversation, one statement, one speech is going to be sufficient in addressing this matter the way he wants to and he intends to keep addressing it both personally and, to the degree he needs to, publicly, as he sees fit," said White House press secretary Michael McCurry.
McCurry said Clinton has not discussed resignation with anyone and that today's statement about being "very sorry" was "heartfelt" but not a departure from previous comments. "He believes what he said today is consistent with how he's addressed it in the past," McCurry said. "But surely others would have a different interpretation and I imagine that will continue to be the case."
Staff writers Helen Dewar and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report from Washington.
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