From Political Washington,
A Call for Confession
By John F. Harris
President Clinton has two weeks to prepare to testify to the grand jury in the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation, but political Washington already has arrived at a striking degree of consensus on what he should do: Come clean to the public and hope for the best.
Whispered about for six months, the notion that Clinton can confess wrongdoing -- to the public and the grand jury -- and count on the mercy of a nation desperate for closure in the controversy has rapidly hardened in recent days into the capital's new conventional wisdom.
The "mea culpa scenario" is being publicly urged by lawmakers in both parties, who said a public acknowledgment by Clinton of an improper relationship with Lewinsky, accompanied by a statement of contrition, could stanch his political wounds. While such a statement would confirm something Clinton has denied for half a year, many legislators predicted that it could generate enough relief and sympathy that Congress would feel no need to pursue whatever allegations of wrongdoing independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr might present to them.
This same view is being publicly volunteered by a growing procession of former Clinton aides whose televised interviews share an implied assumption: They apparently believe their former boss has at best evaded legitimate questions and at worst lied.
No one claimed knowledge of the president's plans after that. As has been the case for months, his deliberations on the subject are confined to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and a handful of lawyers.
Several current and former aides who have been in the trenches with Clinton through various ethical controversies said yesterday that admitting wrongdoing and asking forgiveness would go against both Clinton's personal instincts and the tough-it-out strategy he has followed before.
But several aides apparently believe that mounting evidence against Clinton -- in particular the possibility that prosecutors have a dress from Lewinsky with the president's semen on it -- may have left Clinton with no escape hatch. Former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers told a panel discussion at an American Bar Association meeting that the best course for Clinton would be to give the public "some overarching explanation" of the relationship, even if that means he has to "change his story in some substantial way."
Former White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta said on CNN's "Late Edition" Sunday that Clinton should share with the public whatever it is he tells the grand jury. "I think this matter is important enough that he should sit down, stare the American people in the eye, and do it directly, from the Oval Office," he said.
White House spokesman Barry Toiv yesterday said there are no plans to change his story: "The president has told the truth about this, and he will continue to do so. I have no reason to think that that has changed in any way."
In addition to Myers and Panetta, other former Clinton aides who have urged him to speak out, even if it means admitting he lied, are David R. Gergen and George Stephanopoulos. Even former aides such as former White House counsel Jack Quinn and spokesman Lanny J. Davis -- both of whom are regarded within the White House as administration proxies -- have been willing at least to entertain the possibility that Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky is not what he said it is.
While Quinn said on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday that he believes Clinton has told the truth, even if Clinton lied, it would not justify Starr's inquiry. "This is a matter of sex between consenting adults, and the question of whether or not one or the other was truthful about it," he said. "This doesn't go to the question of his conduct in office. And, in that sense, it's trivial."
Clinton will have a chance Wednesday to learn whether congressional Democrats agree when he meets with the House Democratic caucus, which is anxious about the situation's impact on Democrats in the fall elections. White House aides said Clinton did not plan to discuss the matter, but some legislators said they expect him to address it.
"There is a natural tendency not to raise issues like this," explained Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), adding that he had never broached the topic in discussions with the president. "But in the caucus, I would expect him to address it on his own."
"Nobody feels particularly comfortable," Moran added. "People want to get it over with. It's like a serial that's been running all year and we've seen the reruns. It's time for a new fall schedule."
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) expressed similar sentiments and called on Clinton to make a mea culpa. "I would make peace with my wife and I'd stand up and say, 'Here's the deal,' " Biden told Time magazine. "Even though it might make Starr's case, no Congress would ever impeach him."
While some Clinton loyalists close to his inner circle said there could be merit in this approach, others said the idea that a confession would put an end to either Starr's probe or the clamor from a faction of conservative Republicans for congressional hearings is naive. Apologizing for a sexual relationship, they said, would do nothing to end the more serious allegations of obstruction of justice in the now-dismissed Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit.
Mandy Grunwald, a campaign consultant from the 1992 campaign who remains a Clinton loyalist, dismissed all talk about a Clinton apologia as the product of a "wind tunnel" of Washington conventional wisdom. In Clinton's first bid for president, she recalled, many people thought he should give a bare-all speech or news conference to deal with nagging allegations of draft evasion and an affair with Gennifer Flowers. "He didn't, and we won," she said.
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company