By John F. Harris
Everyone, according to several people in the room, understood Kantor's point: The president of the United States knew exactly what he wanted to say when he addressed the nation about his relationship with former White House aide Monica S. Lewinsky.
Throughout the next day, there would be new drafts written by advisers, cautious edits insisted upon by lawyers, and urgings to Clinton from staff to discard his defiant criticism of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. In the White House solarium Monday evening, the wrangling between different White House factions over the wording of the speech continued until less than an hour before the 10 p.m. air time.
In the end, however, the speech Clinton gave was emphatically his own too much so for his own good, some aides worried yesterday.
The consensus among numerous Clinton loyalists, both in the White House and outside, was that Clinton had effectively addressed the concerns of a majority of Americans with his televised statement that his relationship with Lewinsky was "not appropriate" and that he took "complete responsibility" for a "critical lapse in judgment."
But several advisers also agreed that the second half of Clinton's speech with its seething tone toward Starr and the president's insistence that his adulterous sexual relationship with the former intern was "nobody's business" but his family's had inflamed an already hostile environment in Washington.
In the assessment of White House political advisers, Republicans and the news media wanted Clinton to be held, and to hold himself, accountable for his transgressions with Lewinsky. That being the case, they argued, why would he want to muddy a speech intended to signal remorse and the acceptance of responsibility with words of victimhood and grievance?
The answer and the last word on the subject was that Clinton himself wanted it that way. In the end political advisers persuaded Clinton to tone down some of his rhetoric, but the gist of it stayed intact.
"People complain Clinton is programmed," said one Clinton adviser, "but it does not get any more authentic than this. He said exactly what he thinks."
Numerous sources with firsthand or close secondhand knowledge of the speech deliberations discussed the evolution of the speech yesterday under the condition they not be quoted by name.
Several described three clusters of advisers with different interests in the speech. One cluster included White House political advisers such as Rahm Emanuel and Paul Begala, who felt that Clinton's most important task was to try to bring closure to the Lewinsky controversy with an unambiguous display of contrition. A second cluster, led by Clinton's private attorney, David E. Kendall, wanted Clinton above all to do nothing that might increase his legal jeopardy. This meant limiting apologies and being vague about precisely what actions he was expressing regret about.
A third cluster, which included White House aide Sidney Blumenthal and apparently had the support of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, was eager to take the offensive against Starr with expressions of outrage about the roaming nature of his four-year investigation and condemnation of his alleged violations of privacy. Blumenthal faxed in his suggestions from a European vacation.
Amid this barrage of advice, aides said Hillary Clinton urged her husband to simply say what he felt.
Yet even a speech as intimately personal as this was, like all Clinton speeches, a committee product.
Begala, a political consultant who joined the White House staff last year, was tapped as editor of the effort. Begala, colleagues said, had been crafting passages for a hypothetical contrition speech all weekend. His versions, sources said, contained far more forceful language of regret than the one Clinton finally gave, and none of the attacks on Starr.
But Begala was working only in the abstract. It was not until Monday, after Clinton had begun testifying, that Kantor was given the green light to actually share with him Clinton's proposed speech. The president's handwritten notes had by then been put into typed form.
Only then, just several hours before the speech, did White House officials learn of the harsh language Clinton wanted to include against Starr.
Even some aides who wanted Clinton to take a softer line were wary of overdoing any words of apology. They rejected as undignified a draft faxed in by Democratic political consultant Robert Shrum, who has written speeches for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
Shrum proposed that Clinton say that "I let too many people down" including his family, the American people and Lewinsky and that "none of this ever should have happened." Clinton would have acknowledged "sexual contact," said there was "no excuse" for his behavior and expressly apologized for his behavior.
But Clinton aides dismissed this language, saying it would have amounted to groveling that would have weakened Clinton's reputation both at home and overseas.
Having concluded that this language went too far, the question confronting the White House yesterday was whether the language Clinton did use went far enough.
While most of the country likes Clinton and is rooting for him, one aide said, Republicans and many reporters are driven to distraction by their fear that Clinton is getting away with something.
It was largely to overcome the response emanating from Washington that White House political advisers worked yesterday to generate a public perception that Clinton has indeed paid for his sins. This is one reason, aides said, why Clinton loyalists such as consultant James Carville kept stressing publicly how angry Hillary Clinton is over her husband's deception.
And the White House prodded Democrats on Capitol Hill to spread the message that Clinton has paid a grievous price for what they describe as private sexual follies. Among those whom political advisers prompted to make a statement was Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), who called a reporter unsolicited from a trip to England.
"As a husband, father and a man, Bill Clinton has been humiliated," said Torricelli. "I see no value in compounding the pain."
Torricelli said he spoke with Clinton yesterday and discerned a deep "sense of relief: Bill Clinton probably always knew he was going to face this moment of truth."
White House aides, meanwhile, said they were coming to terms with their own feelings about Clinton's Monday night admission. Some expressed astonishment, not merely at Clinton, but at White House lawyers. For nearly seven months, aides said, they had been given assurances by lawyers that when Clinton denied in January having "sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," he was not relying on legalistic language that made a distinction between intercourse and other forms of intimate physical relations. Over the weekend, they learned that Clinton and his lawyers apparently were making precisely such a distinction.
But in a sign of how carefully the White House plots public relations strategy, aides drafted talking points for how to answer questions about their own reactions to Clinton's deceptions about Lewinsky.
"Do you forgive him for misleading you and the country?" read one sample question.
The talking points suggested the following answer: "It's been said that 'He who cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself.' Of course I do."
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