In a grudging public admission after seven months of denial, President Clinton told the American people Monday night that he had a relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky that was “not appropriate, in fact, it was wrong.”
In a televised address that followed an historic day of testimony to a grand jury, Clinton also acknowledged lying to the public about his “private” conduct but steadfastly insisted that he had not asked anyone to lie or otherwise break the law.
“I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that,” Clinton said smoothly and without flinching. “I intend to reclaim my family life for my family.”
While he took “complete responsibility” for his actions, Clinton--speaking from the same White House Map Room where only hours before he had been grilled by prosecutors--also used the occasion to defiantly challenge the propriety of the investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
“It’s nobody’s business but ours,” Clinton said. “Even presidents have private lives. It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives.”
Using an assertive tone that conveyed a command from the nation’s chief executive and not a request from a penitent politician, Clinton directed the country and Starr to “turn away from the spectacle of the last seven months.”
But he did not try to hide the gravity of the moment. Monday’s testimony marked a low point in Clinton’s presidency. For months, his domestic and foreign policy initiatives have been overshadowed by the spectacle of a chief executive caught in a soap opera with the world watching.
The full impact of the episode remains in the hands of Congress and the American people. But Clinton’s second term already has been marred, his legacy tainted, analysts and Clinton allies agreed.
Much of the fallout will depend on public opinion and Congress’ assessment of how outraged the American people are about their president lying to them.
And Clinton’s speech told the American people what public opinion polls said they wanted to hear--an acceptance of responsibility but no details of the relationship with the young woman who has gone from obscurity to international renown without ever voicing a word in public.
“In a case like this, less is more and the America people have been consistent about that,” said Rahm Emanuel, the president’s senior advisor for strategy and policy.
The speech followed 4 1/4 hours of testimony by the president with his attorneys and Starr in the room. From the federal courthouse about a mile away, 23 grand jurors watched the closed-circuit proceedings on two 20-inch television monitors.
Clinton’s answers about his relationship with Lewinsky were “candid but not graphically detailed,” according to a senior White House official.
“The questions got, in some cases, probably outrageously explicit,” the aide said. “I don’t want to pin that on Starr’s people. Some of those questions may have come from the grand jurors.”
Clinton refused to answer those questions explicitly, which resulted in “disputes” with the prosecutors, the aide added.
President May Be Called Again
Starr reportedly reserved the right to call on the president to testify again, as a result. But the president’s lawyer, David E. Kendall, told some White House advisors that he does not expect Starr to do so, one senior White House official said.
“He thinks that the questions are of such a graphic and intrusive nature that it’s highly unlikely that Starr would risk a fight,” the official said. The president has “solid reasons of personal privacy and institutional integrity” not to answer those questions, the advisor added.
Clinton looked “relieved and happy” when he came out of the Map Room but “ready to go several more rounds,” the aide said.
Afterward, the aide said, “the first order was to ask whether he wanted to go ahead with the speech. He said, ‘Absolutely. Let’s get it over with.’ ”
The testimony was the biggest showdown of Starr’s inquiry, which started with an investigation of a 20-year-old land deal and since January has focused on Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky and his alleged efforts to cover it up.
While the White House hoped that the bizarre day would end the investigation and the media’s obsession with it, there was no such guarantee from Starr’s office. He is required by law to send to Congress any information that might constitute evidence of an impeachable offense.
It was not yet clear how Congress would respond but some Republicans were pointedly attacking the president.
“Wasn’t that pathetic. I tell you, what a jerk,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said. “That’s the biggest mistake he’s ever made.”
Starr could conclude that Clinton committed perjury--an impeachable offense--by testifying under oath that he did not have sexual relations with Lewinsky in the civil sexual harassment suit of Paula Corbin Jones. It is not known how Clinton responded to questions related to possible obstruction of justice, such as the retrieving of gifts that he gave to Lewinsky.
Lewinsky reportedly testified that she had engaged in sexual intimacies--short of intercourse--with the president about a dozen times over 18 months in the White House and to having an implicit understanding with the president that both would deny it.
Private Matter, Advisors Say
White House advisors said that it is the president’s hope that his testimony and speech will enable the American people to see his relationship with Lewinsky as a private matter and allow him to move forward.
“I think they’ll say, ‘He owned up to it. This is a private matter and it’s between the president and the first lady and it’s none of our business,’ ” Emanuel said.
Although polls have strongly indicated that the American people would forgive Clinton if he came clean, pollsters warned that the reality of his admissions could change people’s minds.
“The public reactions are going to take time. If people begin to focus more on deceit and less on sex and [the belief that] it’s between him and Mrs. Clinton, then I think Clinton could enjoy a drop in support,” said Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which has polled extensively on the matter.
“The question is will people now do what they said they were going to do, which is accept him, and not be angry and hostile as a consequence.”
The 30% of Americans who believed the president’s story, most of whom are Democrats, are the biggest question mark: “Are they going to be so damn dispirited by him coming out and saying this that they’ll not turn out to vote in the fall and not support democratic candidates?”
Although Clinton’s appeal to the American people was unique in many ways, it fit squarely into the history of modern presidential apologies--and even appeared patterned after them.
Several presidents have found the public ready and willing to forgive their mistakes--as long as the chief executive acknowledged error and asked for absolution. John F. Kennedy’s public approval ratings soared in 1961 after he accepted responsibility for a failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Ronald Reagan’s popularity revived after he acknowledged mistakes in the Iran-contra scandal.
And Clinton himself revived his political career as governor of Arkansas when he apologized to his state’s citizens after they voted him out of office in 1982.
“It doesn’t happen very often, but it usually works,” said Walter Dean Burnham, professor of government at the University of Texas. “This one will probably work, too, unless some new problem materializes. The public will forgive the president. In the long run, the historians may not.”
Given Clinton’s history of reluctance to admit controversial personal conduct--from avoiding military service during the Vietnam War to smoking marijuana--there was an air of uncertainty all weekend about whether the president would give the speech at all.
But on Monday, as Clinton prepared for the legal confrontation with Starr, his political advisors--who had been out of the loop on the matter for months--shifted into battle mode.
Paul Begala, the best writer among the president’s senior advisors, holed up in his office in the basement of the West Wing working on a draft of the president’s address. Other political advisors gave their input as well. They were working from a draft the president wrote himself some days ago. He was expected to have the last edit, White House officials said.
Late in the day, there was an unexpected mood of relief among some of Clinton’s top advisors as the months of suspense and powerlessnesse ended and they were finally back in the center of the president’s universe trying to control the damage and keep the presidency intact.
Clinton had private talks with some of his staff after his testimony.
But earlier in the day, Clinton was silent and it was up to Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles to give a pep talk. Over the last several months, Clinton, after initial denials, refused to talk about the Lewinsky matter. His senior political advisors--including Rahm Emanuel, Begala and Ann Lewis--took the public bullets for him, denying the Lewinsky affair on national television and getting pummeled personally in the process.
These officials and a couple of dozen others gathered in the Roosevelt Room of the West Wing of the White House for the daily senior staff meeting, at 8:45 a.m. Monday.
Bowles started the meeting by telling other staff members something that his father had told him when he was “a little chap,” White House spokesman Mike McCurry said. His statement, McCurry added, captured the mood in the West Wing, the working section of the White House.
“It’s easy to be there for someone when they’re up but it’s the good ones who are there for you when you’re down,” Bowles said, according to McCurry. “And Erskine told us that we have a lot of important work to do and the president and American people expect us to do our jobs.”
Some in White House Express Disgust
But some White House officials could not contain their disgust at serving a president who would engage in such risky personal behavior.
“It’s horrible, horrible, horrible,” said one White House official, who spoke on condition that he not be identified. “I feel nauseated by it all.”
The official said that the press and independent counsel share in the blame with the president.
“We’re making the history books with something you can’t put in a high school history book,” the official said.
Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus contributed to this story.
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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Day at the White House
All times Eastern
* 8:45 a.m. Monday begins with a meeting for senior staff members called by White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. He encourages loyalty, saying: “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.”
* 9-11:15 a.m. The president’s lawyers, David E. Kendall and Nicole Seligman, White House counsel Charles Ruff, along with adviser Mickey Kantor--meet with the president in the Map Room to go over Clinton’s imminent testimony.
* 10:30 a.m. Press Secretary Mike McCurry addressed “our normal, routine gaggle” of reporters, describing the president as “confident and determined to tell the truth.”
* 11:15-11:30 a.m. The president reverts to his normal schedule with a briefing from Bowles followed by a national security briefing from Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger. In a basement office, White House aide Paul Begala works on a draft of a Clinton speech.
* 12:30 p.m. Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, accompanied by his deputies, arrives at the White House, entering through the diplomatic entrance.
* 12:59 p.m. The president begins his testimony.
* 6:25 p.m. The president ends his testimony.
* 6:40 p.m. Starr emerges from the White House, smiles and waves at reporters and leaves without a word from the South Portico.
* 6:45 p.m. Kendall speaks to reporters, saying that Clinton testified “truthfully. We’re hopeful that the president’s testimony will finally bring closure to the independent counsel’s more than four year and over $40-million investigation, which has culminated in an investigation of the president’s private life.”
* 10 p.m. The president gives a short speech to the nation.
Map Room: Site of testimony, speech to the nation.
Press room: Only journalists who regularly cover the White House are admitted.
Media outpost: Dozens of photographers camped here, waiting for word from inside.
Residence: First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton spends day in residence, with daughter Chelsea.
Sources: The White House: An Historic Guide; The Living White House; From the Door of the White House
Researched by TRICIA FORD / Los Angeles Times
* MEDIA SCRAMBLE: Pundits talked all day, though there was precious little news to report. A12
* VIEW FROM THE HILL: Partisan reaction mixes with wait-and-see attitude in Congress. A11
* IN DEFENSE: Several Clinton loyalists rallied behind the president after his reversal. A10
* TEXT OF SPEECH: ‘I must take complete responsibility for all my actions . . . ' Clinton says. A14