By John F. Harris
"I've done my best to be your friend," Clinton told Florida Democrats gathered for an afternoon fund-raiser. "But I also let you down, and I let my family down, and I let this country down. But I'm trying to make it right. And I'm determined never to let anything like that happen again."
Both the public and private statements, according to White House political advisers and strategists, had essentially the same audience: congressional Democrats who are demanding frequent and emphatic shows of contrition from Clinton as a condition for their support for him in the impending showdown over impeachment.
Some advisers said they envision a potentially long-haul battle aimed at defeating any congressional attempt to discipline Clinton. But there is fast-rising sentiment among many senior political aides in favor of a hasty resolution, despite wide recognition that the minimum Clinton could hope for under this scenario is probably a congressional resolution of censure.
One veteran Clinton adviser said an uncompromising strategy could pivot quickly. "Before you cut the deal, you fight," this loyalist said. "Do I think there's a way for a deal to be cut? Yes. I think you create the right climate for the deal."
On the day that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr delivered his report on the Monica S. Lewinsky controversy to Congress, Clinton advisers inside and outside the White House say their efforts are focused on Democratic lawmakers, with the president grudgingly trying to strike a balance between appropriate humility for his wrongdoing and groveling that some aides fear would send a message that personal scandal has over taken the policy agenda.
With this basic question of strategy still apparently unsettled, the White House continued to search for what some aides are describing as an "uberlawyer" -- a new member of Clinton's defense team who would serve as ambassador to Capitol Hill and supervise the fight against impeachment.
Sources said Clinton's private attorney, David E. Kendall, who has retained tight control of legal strategy, and White House Deputy Chief of Staff John D. Podesta, who runs the political side of the damage-control operation, are looking for someone with extensive congressional experience, preferably a former member. Among the names under consideration are former representative James Jones (D-Okla.), who has also served as ambassador to Mexico, and Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), a member of the House leadership who is retiring this year.
While Clinton and senior advisers look for someone to command the anti-impeachment corps, some White House officials frankly acknowledged a rising sense of helplessness and gloom about the impact of Starr's report on alleged perjury and obstruction of justice by the president.
"On the one hand it's very difficult," said a senior White House official. "On the other hand it's very liberating because there's nothing you can do."
The emerging strategy of frequent mea culpas -- which included the blunt statement by the president in Florida that "I have no one but myself to blame" for his current problems and the pledge that he is "determined to redeem the trust of people" -- is in stark contrast to Clinton's initial plea that his relationship with Lewinsky was a private matter and that the nation needed to "move on."
What nine of the House's top Democrats saw during their 75 minutes with Clinton was the regret and the contrition that many of them said had been desperately lacking in the president's brief remarks on national television after his Aug. 17 grand jury testimony. But these Democrats also made plain their desire for the president to repeat the private apologies he gave them with similar words in public.
"I advised him that the president needs to make it clear to the American people, in a way that he did to us today, his contrition, his sorrow for his actions," House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) told reporters, after meeting with Clinton in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House residence. "And he needs to do that not just once; he needs to understand that this is a process that will be ongoing -- this issue will be raised time and again throughout the weeks, perhaps even months."
These words, which many senior White House aides agree with, chafe at others. Clinton's salvation during numerous personal controversies has been a public confidence -- reflected consistently in polling data -- that he was engaged with an agenda the public supports. If Clinton bends to the desires of many congressional Democrats and Washington commentators that he express contrition over and over, a practical-minded public may conclude he is now so preoccupied with personal survival that he can no longer address their concerns, according to some aides.
In Florida, Clinton seemed to be aware of this dilemma. Despite his acknowledgment of wrongdoing, he told contributors to Democratic gubernatorial nominee Buddy MacKay, "it doesn't take away from whether we're right or wrong on the issues or what we've done for the last six years or what this election is about."
"Don't be fooled, not for a minute, not for a day," he added. "Elections are about you and your children and your communities and your future."
This rhetoric echoed closely the words Clinton used the first time he was battling a sex scandal, now almost seven years ago, when Gennifer Flowers made her adultery allegations in the midst of the 1992 New Hampshire primary battle. Clinton's refrain then to voters was that the election should be about their future, not his past.
The Democrats he met with yesterday over coffee and Danish seemed inclined, after hearing what several described as Clinton's emotional words of remorse, to again, after several weeks of uncertainty, extend him some benefit of the doubt.
"It was a meeting extraordinary in the openness and candor of both the president and members of Congress," said Chief Deputy Minority Whip Chet Edwards (D-Tex.). "What I saw and heard at the meeting was a husband and president who was genuinely and deeply sorry for the pain he had caused."
"He expressed his regrets for the position he had put all of us in, as well as his family and the country as a whole," said Chief Deputy Minority Whip Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), adding that Clinton acknowledged that the Lewinsky affair had profoundly affected his family, and that "he was trying to make it right." This, Menendez said, was "one of his top priorities."
"I wish what we heard and saw today had been seen and heard by the nation" in Clinton's Aug. 17 speech, Menendez added. "If that had been the presentation he had made -- deep from the gut -- he would be in a much better position today."
Menendez challenged Clinton in the presence of Vice President Gore and Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles to give assurances that there was not worse news to come. Clinton told them, Menendez said, that there was "really nothing else" to worry about. "They [the White House] don't know what the report says," Menendez said. "But there is no credible evidence to substantiate anything else, although Starr may allege it."
When Clinton returns to Washington today, he is scheduled to meet with Senate Democrats and his Cabinet to tell them what he told the House Democrats.
Speaking last night in Miami at another fund-raiser, he returned to his message of contrition. "I've tried to do a good job taking care of this country even when I haven't taken such good care of myself and my family and my obligations," the president said. "I hope you and others I have injured will forgive me for the mistakes I have made. But the most important thing is, you must not let it deter you."
But some Clinton loyalists said whatever the president or his allies do now may end up mattering little. The key, some believe, will be a brief but decisive battle to define the controversy once details of Starr's report start to become public.
"What is this? We still don't know: Are we dealing with sin or are we dealing with crime," said one former Clinton strategist, who remains close to some at the White House.
One outside Clinton adviser, who speaks regularly with the president and his staff, said: "A lot of information is going to be coming in a concentrated time. . . . A lot of it is going to depend on public opinion over a 48-hour period."
Staff writer Guy Gugliotta contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company