By John F. Harris
President Clinton said the time had come to speak "rock-bottom truth," and he stayed up until 4 a.m. laboring on the words to express it. Five hours later, a man who a few weeks ago would not utter the words "I am sorry" stood before men and women of the cloth and vaulted the history of presidential apologies into a new realm.
"I don't think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned," said Clinton, his eyes glistening and his voice thick with emotion, as he addressed the ministers gathered yesterday in the East Room for the White House's annual prayer breakfast.
But even as Clinton seemed to be giving up any effort to deny or defend his behavior on moral grounds, he served notice that he was not done fighting: "I will instruct my lawyers to mount a vigorous defense, using all available appropriate arguments."
The meaning of that statement became clear seven hours later. His personal attorney, David E. Kendall, sat before reporters in the Roosevelt Room the very place where Clinton eight months ago declared that "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" and made plain that Clinton's defense against impeachment will rely heavily upon legalistic distinctions between lying and misleading, and between concealment and coverup.
That sharp contrast between Clinton's abject apology and Kendall's lawyerly legerdemain highlighted the dual tracks the White House was following on perhaps the most remarkable day of the Clinton presidency, when the release of the Starr report made his survival in office an open question.
Clinton's East Room mea culpa was a gripping moment, but it turned out to be just one scene in a kaleidoscopic day of astonishing moments. There was a 50-foot line of reporters waiting at the White House press office like teenagers trying to buy tickets to a rock concert, eager for copies of the defense memo that was made public even before Starr's report a "prebuttal," as aides dubbed it.
There was White House press secretary Michael McCurry, live on national television, denying that the president was receiving psychological treatment but declining to say what counseling he might be receiving. That question was inspired by Clinton's morning reference to the fact that as he continues on the "path to redemption," he will seek "pastoral support and that of other caring people so that they can hold me accountable for my own commitment."
There were other indelicate questions. One reporter asked whether Clinton suffered from "satyriasis," a term for sexual addiction. No, McCurry said.
It was a day of low moments at the White House, the place abuzz with ceaseless chatter among senior aides and reporters alike of what Kendall called "salacious allegations . . . intended to humiliate, embarrass and politically damage the president."
It was part of Clinton's defense to move the drama to a higher plane. Not a morning person under the best of circumstances, Clinton looked tired and subdued as he took to the lectern, after a brief introduction by Vice President Gore, to talk to the 106 religious leaders. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton looked on as he spoke, her face calm and betraying no particular mood.
Clinton, reading from a handwritten script, gave the speech that many of his aides wished he had given eight months ago, when the scandal first broke, or at the very least after his Aug. 17 grand jury testimony. The president himself said he had not been contrite enough in his defiant first address to the nation.
And while he had once lashed out angrily at Starr for invading his privacy, the president said the investigation into his extramarital affair may actually have been "a blessing" because it forced him to confront his failings. For the first time, he said he was asking for Monica S. Lewinksy's forgiveness.
And he said he was hoping that something positive could come out of personal disaster.
"If my repentance is genuine and sustained, and if I can maintain both a broken spirit and a strong heart, then good can come of this for our country as well as for me and my family," Clinton said, as applause rose from the audience. "The children of this country can learn in a profound way that integrity is important and selfishness is wrong, but God can change us and make us strong at the broken places."
Some in the White House cracked that Clinton had delivered a "full Swaggart," referring to the flamboyant, sobbing confession that televangelist Jimmy Swaggart gave in 1988 when his sexual transgressions were exposed.
The president read a passage from a Jewish text called the "Gates of Repentance" that had been given to him by Miami lawyer Ira Leesfield, whose home Clinton visited for dessert after a Democratic fund-raiser Wednesday night.
The East Room gathering plainly loved the message. "Yes, sir!" a group of African American ministers shouted as he spoke. Afterward, Jesse L. Jackson rose to shake Clinton's hand. The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, described the atmosphere as "subdued" and "deeply spiritual."
"Nobody sitting in that room wasn't moved by his humility," she said. "He called forth some of who we all are."
As a political matter, however, it was far from clear that the speech would accomplish its apparent goal of winning sympathy for Clinton and convincing the public that he has held himself fully accountable for wrongdoing.
"What do his words mean? Do they reflect his sentiment or do they reflect his predicament?" asked Martha Joynt Kumar, a fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government who has studied the Clinton presidency. If it had been delivered earlier, Clinton's speech "would have had the power to answer some questions and prevent others from being delivered," Kumar said. As it is, she added, his fate will be determined much more by Congress's reading of the facts in the Starr report than by Clinton's ability to strike emotional chords in a confession.
Inside the White House, the disconsolate mood of recent days began to lift a bit yesterday. Many senior aides said they believed that Starr's lurid presentation of sexual episodes would rebound to the president's advantage, underscoring their case that the investigation was a prurient exercise that was more about titillation than law-breaking.
For all the fears among some senior White House officials that they would not be able to present an effective response yesterday, aides said last night they were satisfied that Clinton's side had not been swamped by Starr's allegations.
The months-long tension between senior political aides and the president's legal team has lessened in recent days, as lawyers have begun to share information and coordinate more closely with other advisers. The political team pressed the lawyers to have a written document ready to go by the afternoon; lawyers, cautious by instinct, said they wanted to wait until they had read Starr's report. But the lawyers eventually yielded, with several staying up all night to prepare the rebuttal, based on news leaks of what Starr would allege.
A more detailed report seeking to rebut Starr's allegation is due today. But a White House plan to hire a prominent outsider, such as a former member of Congress, as an "uberlawyer" to lead the battle against impeachment on Capitol Hill is being modified. The current plan is to hire a team of lesser-known lawyers, who may or may not be complemented by a more prominent figure.
The prayer breakfast was just the first event in a busy public day for both the president and first lady. A few hours later, they appeared together at Washington National Cathedral for a memorial service for people killed in last month's East Africa terrorist bombings. And, later still, they appeared together at a South Lawn ceremony honoring Irish Americans.
The Irish American crowd that gathered for a reception on the South Lawn showered the Clintons with sustained applause and throaty cheers. They stood in ovation as soon as the president and first lady were announced and continued clapping, despite the president's attempts to quiet them with an aw-shucks wave of both arms. Finally Clinton sat down, and when the hollers continued he stood to take a bow, ať la Mark McGwire. Which prompted more applause.
Hillary Clinton, who has yet to speak publicly on the Lewinsky matter since her husband acknowledged his extramarital affair, was among those leading the extended applause, as she gazed beamingly at the president.
Earlier in the day, she appeared separately in the Maryland suburbs to promote foster care programs. She spoke in personal terms about her own mother's difficult childhood, in which she spent time as a teenager working in another family's home. "She got to see a real family," Hillary Clinton said. "She got to watch what happens inside the home where parents and children went through all that you go through as a family because she had never had that before."
"I think there's a lot you can help teach Americans about resilience, hope, grit and determination," she said.
Staff writer Kevin Merida contributed to this report.
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