"I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate," Clinton said from the historic Map Room at the White House, where he had testified to a federal grand jury for more than four hours earlier in the day. "In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible."
"I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression," he added, although he did not say directly that he had had sex with Lewinsky. "I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that."
But the president's tone during his five-minute statement was flavored with as much anger as remorse as he lashed out at Starr and called for a halt to the investigation of whether he perjured himself in the Paula Jones lawsuit or encouraged others to do so. "I intend to reclaim my family life for my family," he said. "It's nobody's business but ours. Even presidents have private lives. It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives and get on with our national life."
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who held her husband's hand at church Sunday morning and whose staunch defense of him through sex scandals in the past has been so critical to his political survival, did not join him for last night's statement. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who visited the White House and prayed with her late Sunday night, said the first lady was feeling "a sense of humiliation."
Last night's televised address capped an unprecedented day at the White House as Clinton became the first president to testify in a grand jury criminal investigation of his own actions. With Starr likely to send an impeachment report to Congress, the White House hoped to frame the debate in a way that focuses attention on the sex aspects of the case rather than allegations of obstruction of justice.
As he has from the start of Starr's inquiry, Clinton categorically denied that he "ask[ed] anyone to lie, to hide or destroy evidence, or to take any other unlawful action." But it was unclear last night how he explained efforts by his associates to find Lewinsky a job in New York and to recover gifts he once gave her that had been subpoenaed by the Jones team.
Even more so than in his public appearance, Clinton was combative during his closed session with Starr, according to sources familiar with the meeting, and the president declined to answer a number of questions, despite his pledge two weeks ago to testify "completely and truthfully."
While modifying his description of their relationship, Clinton denied that he committed perjury during his Jan. 17 deposition in the Jones case when he denied having "sexual relations" with Lewinsky, now 25, relying on a technical interpretation of the term to argue that his testimony was "legally accurate."
Starr was not able to ask all the questions he wanted to before the predetermined time expired and Clinton refused to extend, according to the sources. Starr, sources said, told Clinton he may subpoena him to get answers to the questions the president rebuffed, prompting a possible new constitutional court battle.
Clinton's attorney, David E. Kendall, said later that Clinton was justified in refusing to answer because the questions were improperly and unnecessarily graphic. "As to a very few highly intrusive questions, with respect to the specifics of this [sexual] contact, in order to preserve personal privacy and institutional dignity, he gave candid, but not detailed, answers," Kendall said.
Clinton agreed to testify yesterday only after Starr issued an unprecedented subpoena to a sitting president last month and Kendall -- who had urged his client not to agree to testify but was overruled -- negotiated to have it withdrawn so Clinton could say he told his story voluntarily. Joined by Kendall, his partner Nicole K. Seligman and White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff, Clinton sat down to answer questions at 12:59 p.m. in the ground-floor Map Room, where Franklin D. Roosevelt directed Allied efforts during World War II.
Starr left the questioning to his top lieutenants, Jackie M. Bennett Jr., Solomon L. Wisenberg and Robert J. Bittman. The 23-member grand jury that has been examining Clinton's dealings with Lewinsky since January watched on twin 19-inch televisions carrying an encrypted, one-way feed to a second-floor courtroom at the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse about a mile away.
Starr left the White House without commenting, but his spokesman told reporters that the probe would proceed. "We're continuing to do what we said we would and that is to complete the investigation as fairly and efficiently as we can and that's what we're going to do," said Starr counselor Charles G. Bakaly III.
Clinton, who turns 52 tomorrow, plans to escape Washington this morning for a two-week vacation in Martha's Vineyard with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton.
Seven Months of Denials
For the last seven months, Clinton has let stand his denials of any sexual liaisons with Lewinsky and allowed aides and even his wife go on television to repeat them.
During his Jan. 17 deposition in the Jones case, he said, "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. I've never had an affair with her." Four days later, after the story of Starr's investigation broke, Clinton said, "There is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship, or any other kind of improper relationship."
When that failed to quell a political storm, Clinton went on television again to deny it more forcefully in a Jan. 26 statement that has become a coda for this saga. "Listen to me," he said defiantly that day. "I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."
Clinton's turnaround came after Lewinsky struck a deal with Starr and testified under a grant of full immunity that she did have an 18-month sexual affair with Clinton, including numerous encounters at the White House. She also gave Starr a dress she said was stained with the president's semen, a dress turned over to the FBI laboratory for analysis.
Last night, Clinton did not say he was lying and did not detail the nature of his relationship with Lewinsky but left little doubt what he was talking about. Several advisers confirmed that he testified to sexual activity.
"I can only tell you I was motivated by many factors," he said. "First, by a desire to protect myself from the embarrassment of my own conduct. I was also very concerned about protecting my family. The fact that these questions were being asked in a politically inspired lawsuit, which has since been dismissed, was a consideration too."
Clinton said he takes responsibility, although he did not use words like "apology" or "sorry," as some advisers had urged. Instead, in a passage that added punch to his statement, the president outlined his grievances against Starr for his four-year investigation that has moved "into my private life" and now "itself is under investigation" for illegal grand jury leaks to the media.
"Our country has been distracted by this matter for too long and I take my responsibility for my part in all of this," he said. "That is all I can do. Now is the time -- in fact, it is past time -- to move on. . . . And so tonight I ask you to turn away from the spectacle of the past seven months, to repair the fabric of our national discourse, and to return our attention to all the challenges and all the promise of the next American century."
If some in the Clinton camp had hoped to extend an olive branch to Starr, as some indicated privately over the weekend, the president himself firmly stamped out such a move. The speech he wrote in longhand beginning Sunday turned out more tinged with resentment than certain of his advisers had hoped.
Any hopes of putting the matter to rest with contrition seemed ephemeral last night. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, who had publicly implored Clinton to "pour his heart out," chafed at the president's new attacks on Starr.
While the admission was "a step in the right direction," Hatch said, "I was personally offended" by the blame heaped on the independent counsel. Democrats constantly complain about Starr's multimillion-dollar probe, he said, but Clinton extended the length and cost by refusing to come clean for seven months. If Democrats continue that line of attack, Hatch snapped, "I'm just going to blow my stack."
Clinton's defense of his statements in the Jones sexual harassment lawsuit appears to rely on a semantic dispute over the meaning of "sexual relations." Under the definition approved by U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright during his deposition, "a person engages in 'sexual relations' when the person knowingly engages in or causes contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person."
Legal advisers to the president asserted that did not cover oral sex performed on Clinton, an interpretation disputed by the Jones lawyers and independent legal experts. Even if that were the case, however, Clinton faces possible trouble because Lewinsky testified that they engaged in mutual foreplay activity that would be covered by the definition, according to legal sources.
"While my answers were legally accurate, I did not volunteer information," Clinton said last night.
Starr has also been investigating allegations of obstructing the Jones case. Lewinsky reportedly has testified that the president never asked her directly to lie under oath, but said they developed "cover stories" to use to disguise their affair. She also said he discussed hypothetical ways for her to avoid turning over presidential gifts to Jones's lawyers, as required by a subpoena. Lewinsky ultimately gave the gifts to Clinton's personal secretary, Betty Currie.
Another situation Clinton did not address last night in his public statement was the job help provided Lewinsky by his associates, including Currie and presidential friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr.
According to legal sources, Lewinsky has not said there was any direct quid pro quo suggested to her in exchange for that help. But the timing of job interviews arranged by Jordan in the very weeks she was considering how to respond to a subpoena from Jones has raised suspicions. Lewinsky signed an affidavit Jan. 7 denying a sexual relationship, a statement she recanted when Starr gave her protection from perjury charges.
Suggesting a likely line of defense to be used when Starr's report goes to Congress, a close political adviser said Clinton has already been held accountable and paid his punishment for the Lewinsky relationship because of the mountain of humiliating publicity he has received. "He has already suffered as much as anyone has suffered for a personal relationship," this adviser said. "He has paid a grievous price."
At the White House, officials went about their business trying to concentrate on other activities. At his morning staff meeting with about two dozen senior officials, White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles instructed aides to keep focused on their work. "It's easy to be there for someone when they're up, but it's the good ones who are there when you're down," Bowles told the gathering, according to White House press secretary Michael McCurry.
Bowles later called around to Democratic congressional leaders as well as former high-ranking administration officials to let them know that Clinton would be making his admission and pledging to take full responsibility.
Gore Voices Support
Vice President Gore, on vacation in Hawaii, spoke to Clinton by telephone to offer support. Gore told his own staff to support the president and be "110 percent loyal," an aide said. The vice president later issued a statement saying he watched the president's address with his wife Tipper. "I'm proud of him not only because he is a friend, but . . . a person who had the courage to acknowledge his mistakes," Gore said.
Even so, the president's reversal after seven months of sticking to his story left some close to him dispirited. "It's not a surprise," said one adviser, "but it's still crushing."
On such a momentous day for the Clinton presidency, many major players stayed out of sight. Hillary and Chelsea Clinton made no public appearances, while Lewinsky's camp declined to disclose her whereabouts. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), who would oversee any impeachment review, remained silent.
In the past several days, as Clinton faced up to the inevitability of his testimony and the change of story it required, a circle of advisers that for months was confined to a small group expanded again.
Over the weekend, the president talked with a wide variety of people who provided emotional solace and political advice, including Jackson; the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the minister at Foundry United Methodist Church attended by the first family; and longtime personal friends such as David Leopoulos and Carolyn Staley, who grew up with him in Arkansas.
Clinton got to know Lewinsky in 1995, after she came to Washington with an unpaid summer internship at the White House that she managed to extend into the fall.
According to her account, Lewinsky, then 22, and Clinton, then 49, became sexually involved in November 1995 during the federal government shutdown when she and other interns spent long, extra hours in the West Wing and were shouldering much of the day-to-day clerical work. The next month she got a paying job as a correspondence clerk in the office of legislative affairs.
By the next spring, however, suspicions flared among some close to the president. Her infatuation with the president was obvious to many, who apparently did not know whether it was reciprocated. Secret Service officer Gary Byrne went to Evelyn S. Lieberman, then deputy White House chief of staff, to complain about Lewinsky's behavior. Concerned the young woman was hanging around the West Wing so much, Lieberman had her transferred to the Pentagon in April 1996, where she would eventually meet a fellow White House exile, Linda R. Tripp.
Despite their difference in ages, the two struck up a friendship and Lewinsky confided intimate details of a sexual relationship with Clinton. Last year, Tripp began secretly tape recording their telephone conversations and, convinced Clinton was trying to influence Lewinsky into lying in the Jones case, turned over the tapes to Starr on Jan. 12.
Staff writers Dan Balz and Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.