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Scandal Shadows a Weary President

Clinton President Clinton answers questions Sunday during a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (AFP)

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  • By John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, December 14, 1998; Page A1

    JERUSALEM, Dec. 13 His face weary and his voice subdued, President Clinton stood here today and took all the expected questions one by one.

    At times, Clinton's words conveyed surrender. No, he said, he was not surprised by the House Judiciary Committee voting articles of impeachment, because "I think it's been obvious to anyone who is following it for weeks that the vote was foreordained." And no, he does not plan to make direct personal appeals to lawmakers before this week's House floor vote, because they should vote their consciences without "undue pressure from any quarter."

    At other times the words signaled defiance. No, he told an Israeli reporter, following Richard M. Nixon's example by resigning had "never crossed my mind." And no, he said, he would not assuage critics by acknowledging perjury, "because I did not commit perjury."

    What was most striking about the 30-minute news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was not Clinton's choice of words but the emotions behind them: He scarcely showed any at all.

    Throughout the 11 months of the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, Clinton has shown seething anger, as he did when he first denied the affair and when he later admitted it but asserted that it was "no one's business" but his family's. And there have been episodes of lavish contrition, such as the time he told ministers, "I don't think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned."

    But today, as the confrontation over the proper punishment for Clinton reached a boil, his demeanor seemed curiously impassive. His voice was flat, his expression stony, save for an occasional narrowing of the eyes. He did not bristle, or snap, when pressed twice about resignation. His jaw did not clench visibly the way it often does when he is seeking to hold back fury. He did not pensively bite his lower lip, or offer misty-eyed confessions of error.

    "I don't know what's going to happen; that's up to them," Clinton said, referring to the House of Representatives, which will vote this week on whether to impeach him. "It's out of my hands."

    The questions about impeachment came not just from traveling U.S. reporters, but from Israelis as well. What was once an American fixation about Clinton and scandal is now an international one, even here where Netanyahu is himself imperiled and politics revolves around issues of peace and war rather than definitions of sex and perjury. Everyone seems curious about impeachment.

    The president did make what amounted to his first public assertion that fairness dictates that House members be allowed to vote on a resolution to censure him for his conduct as an alternative to impeachment. Republican House leaders have said they do not intend to allow a censure vote.

    Asked to comment, Clinton said: "I think you ought to ask them whether they're opposed to it because it might pass, since apparently somewhere around three-quarters of the American people think that's the right thing to do."

    Domestic controversy has often shadowed Clinton on his overseas trips, but never so completely or to such surreal effect. The intertwining of scandal and statecraft was all the more vivid given the volatile state of affairs here.

    After a breakthrough between Israel and the Palestinian Authority at U.S.-brokered talks on Maryland's Eastern Shore two months ago, the interim peace accord the two sides reached is in danger of collapsing. Netanyahu has accused the Palestinians of not complying with their obligations under the Wye River agreement. Netanyahu, meanwhile, is balking at complying with his own obligations to cede control of further land to Palestinians on the occupied West Bank. If Netanyahu accedes to U.S. requests to press forward with the peace process, many analysts here believe his own governing coalition could abandon him later this month in a vote of no confidence.

    Amid this air of crisis, Netanyahu interrupted an Israeli reporter in the middle of an impeachment question to plead for a change of subject. Clinton, the prime minister said, came here "on a very clear voyage of peace," and suggested that "it would be appropriate also to ask one or two questions on the peace process.

    "I would like to know the answers too," Netanyahu said.

    Clinton was hardly greeted like an embattled president later this afternoon. A crowd of young people at a Jerusalem convention center erupted into a standing ovation when he entered to deliver a sermon on the need to move ahead toward peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

    But the perilous position of the peace process right now, coming so soon after the hopeful signs at Wye River, if anything contributed to the downbeat mood among members of Clinton's delegation. While the White House is continuing its push to persuade wavering Republicans to vote against impeachment and Clinton said he will make his case personally if lawmakers ask for an audience some Clinton aides said they have grown more pessimistic about averting impeachment.

    Clinton's words did not seem calculated to move many moderate Republicans. Some have suggested they would be more inclined to leniency if Clinton would admit what to many Republicans seems obvious that he made false statements under oath when he denied a relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky during his deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case.

    He would offer no such admission. "Now, was the testimony in the deposition difficult, and ambiguous, and unhelpful? Yes, it was," he allowed.

    But Clinton uttered nothing as specific as White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff, who told the Judiciary panel last week that "reasonable people" might conclude that Clinton had crossed the line between artfully misleading answers and lies. The president confined himself to an oblique endorsement: "I agree with what Mr. Ruff said about it," he said, without specifying which parts of Ruff's testimony he was addressing. "I thought he did an admirable job in acknowledging the difficulty of the testimony."

    While White House aides acknowledge that Clinton's misleading testimony about Lewinsky may have inadvertently stepped over the line, they said Clinton remains convinced it was legitimate to dance close to the line in the first place. White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said Clinton, who has modified parts of his defense over time, still believes it was acceptable to evade answers, "given the context of the political motivation of that civil case."

    At an official dinner with Netanyahu tonight, Clinton seemed to be making veiled references to his personal struggles as he spoke of Israel's larger struggle to make peace while living among historic adversaries. He won applause by recalling that when he was Arkansas governor his pastor predicted he would be president, then told him: "You will make mistakes and God will forgive you. But God will never forgive you if you forget the state of Israel."

    Then his tone turned more serious as he ruminated about error and redemption. "In the Christian New Testament . . . we are instructed that we have to forgive others their sins against us if we expect to be forgiven our own," he said. "We are instructed that they who judge without mercy will be judged without mercy, but mercy triumphs over judgment."


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