The contrast was plain and purposeful. Two months ago, on the day of Clinton’s House impeachment, he surrounded himself with people to send the message that he was undefeated, that he would never resign. Yesterday, Clinton’s somber expression and his self-critical words projected a different sort of resignation: an acceptance of his role in bringing about the nation’s 13-month Monica S. Lewinsky ordeal, and his obligation to devote the remaining 23 months of his tenure to repairing the damage.
“Now that the Senate has fulfilled its constitutional responsibility,” Clinton said, “bringing this process to a conclusion, I want to say again to the American people how profoundly sorry I am for what I said and did to trigger these events and the great burden they have imposed on the Congress and on the American people.”
The statement lasted just a minute, and Clinton turned to walk away. A voice boomed from the press corps: “In your heart, sir, can you forgive and forget?”
Clinton paused, as if weighing whether to disregard his own plan to take no questions. Then he turned back. “I believe any person who asks for forgiveness has to be prepared to give it,” he said.
And so began the postimpeachment phase of his presidency. The themes were repentance for the private lapses of the past and resolve to plunge into public business in the future. Soon after Clinton’s Rose Garden statement, White House staff members had an e-mail pop up on the screen.
“The past year has been especially difficult for you,” Clinton wrote. “I know that my actions and the events they triggered have made your work even harder. For that, I am profoundly sorry. In all this, under the most extraordinary of circumstances, you never lost sight of your first obligation -- to serve the people of our nation.”
These apologies were the latest in a succession of statements that took Clinton over the past year from flat denial to lavish statements of contrition. Even yesterday, however, as aides talked of closure in the scandal, the answers to a central question remained murky: What precisely was Clinton sorry for?
He has spoken often of his regret at pursuing a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, for hurting his family, and for “misleading” the nation about his behavior. But as recently as December, when Clinton’s lawyer acknowledged that “reasonable people” might conclude that Clinton “crossed the line” from evasion to perjury in the Paula Jones case, White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said Clinton did not regret dancing close to the line in the first place. Clinton continues to believe the case was politically motivated, Lockhart said, and therefore unhelpful answers were appropriate.
Yesterday, Clinton’s spokesman declined to discuss whether Clinton regrets the ambiguous conduct that was the subject of Senate debate: Was it appropriate to help Lewinsky find employment or discuss her affidavit in the Jones case, even if these actions did not constitute obstruction of justice? “Well, I can’t decipher [Clinton’s statement] down to that level of detail,” Lockhart said.
The answer underscored a larger reality. The debate over Clinton’s future in office is resolved, but the debate over his conduct will likely echo past his tenure as president and into history.
At the White House, though, the overwhelming feeling was of a painful chapter closing. Clinton spent his morning and part of the afternoon in the residence, not watching the votes on television but getting updates from Chief of Staff John D. Podesta. In the morning, Lockhart said, he exercised and chatted with his mother-in-law, Dorothy Rodham. And he brooded over a handwritten draft of the speech he would give later in the day.
At day’s end, Clinton met for 30 minutes with Jesse L. Jackson in the Oval Office. The minister went to the Clinton family’s side a year ago when the Lewinsky scandal first broke. Jackson said he and Clinton prayed together, a way of bringing a season of scandal to full circle. “We first prayed a year ago on the front side of the storm,” Jackson said. “In some sense, the morning came.”
Jackson said he and Clinton, joined by Podesta, talked about Clinton’s plans for finishing his term. The civil rights leader said the president talked of wanting to devote a share of the nation’s prosperity to the poor and minorities, many of whom were first and most ardent in rallying to Clinton’s defense. Clinton, Jackson said, told him of wanting to travel to Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta and to spend more time in the inner cities.
Clinton did not talk of such specifics in his Rose Garden remarks. But he spoke broadly of his hope that “all Americans, here in Washington and throughout our land, will rededicate ourselves to the work of serving our nation and building our future together.”
Despite the brevity of Clinton’s statement, he and his aides had fretted considerably about it beforehand. As recently as Thursday night, there was talk about releasing a written statement. The reasoning was that every statement Clinton has made over impeachment has been subject to intense second-guessing: Was the president too boastful? Was he groveling?
In the end, Clinton decided he could not hide behind paper, but he kept his words simple and spare. Only a small group helped on the drafts, aides said. Clinton wrote several himself, some longer, some shorter, before deciding on brevity.
Clinton’s legal team was relaxing as he went through the final preparation. White House deputy counsel Cheryl Mills turned 34 yesterday, and most of the president’s top lawyers repaired to the Bombay Club restaurant for a celebratory lunch. A few hours later, Clinton summoned the lawyers to his office to thank them.
Since September, when Clinton told a prayer breakfast that he had reached a moment of “rock-bottom truth,” aides said he has been meeting regularly with a trio of ministers for counseling. One of that group, Washington pastor J. Philip Wogaman, said in an interview yesterday that national healing will take time and effort on Clinton’s part.
“My prayer is that the president will so conduct himself as a man and as a leader that at the end of his time in office even those displeased with him today will be pleased that he was not removed from office,” he said.
As for Clinton’s path to redemption, Wogaman said: “At a minimum, I hope there will be no more infidelity and no more misrepresentations. As to how we know what’s really in a person’s heart, we can’t really know. But as to the public part of his conduct, his leadership should be visionary and strong and be perceived as such.”
Staff writer Hanna Rosin contributed to this report.