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NEWS ANALYSIS

Confession Casts Shadow on Rest of Term

August 18, 1998|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Clinton's dramatic admission Monday night that he had an inappropriate relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky may deflate efforts to remove him from office, but it could also let much of the remaining air out of his presidency.

With polls showing that most Americans are eager to move beyond the controversy, Clinton's terse confession and impassioned call for the country to allow him to "reclaim my family life" could increase pressure on both independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and congressional Republicans to complete the investigation.

But Clinton's reversal of his earlier denials may also accelerate the natural process of political entropy that traditionally saps the influence of presidents in the later years of second terms. And his surprisingly combative attack on Starr's investigation promised an escalation of partisan hostilities in the days ahead. On a night when he was expected to sue for peace, Clinton came closer to declaring war.

Perhaps signaling the fireworks to come, a visibly angry Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told CNN Monday night: "I give [Clinton] credit for . . . being willing to take responsibility but . . . I was really offended when he started to attack Ken Starr at the end. Look, Ken Starr isn't to blame for these actions; [Clinton] is to blame."

Overall, the speech provided a suitably acrid coda to a darkly historic encounter. In a city that has witnessed many red-letter days, Monday provided a dubious milestone: the first moment visible as a scarlet-letter day.

All the evidence so far suggests that Clinton's admission will not stampede the public against him. For weeks, most Americans have told pollsters that they believe Clinton had an affair with Lewinsky. Yet his overall job-approval ratings have remained near the highest levels of his presidency and he has continued to draw strong marks for personal attributes such as tenacity, effectiveness and compassion.

"The American people made a judgment on whether or not he had sex with her a long time ago," said Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio. "There is an understanding that he has to try to protect his marriage [and] his daughter, so they are more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt from that standpoint."

Still, no one can say for sure whether that support will hold over time--particularly as television networks endlessly replay the tape of Clinton in January emphatically denying that he had sexual relations with Lewinsky.

Starr's Intimate Questions an Issue

For most of the last seven months, public outrage has focused less on Clinton's behavior than on Starr's perceived excesses in unearthing the alleged liaison. Indeed, reports that Starr on Monday pressed Clinton for the most intimate and humiliating details could deepen public doubts about the prosecutor's motivation. In his speech Monday, Clinton spent at least as much time attacking the investigation as apologizing for his own behavior.

But with Clinton's admission, the public focus may shift back at least somewhat toward rendering judgment on his apparent willingness to engage in a sustained workplace affair with a woman less than seven years older than his daughter--in the process endangering a presidency that thousands of supporters had worked to make possible and millions of Americans had entrusted with their votes.

Even for supporters who have watched Clinton careen between triumph and disaster since he announced his presidential candidacy in 1991, the spectacle carried a grim sense of personal tragedy. "I'm saddened more than I am angry," said Al From, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and one of Clinton's earliest backers. Inside the White House, one official said that aides were "numb" though "at some point there will be anger" at Clinton.

Conservatives saw Clinton's concession as a validation of their long-standing complaints about his character and honesty. But even that indignation on the right may not be enough to push the Republican Congress toward serious consideration of impeachment after it receives a final report from Starr, as early as next month.

Some congressional Republicans--such as Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime--have said that impeachment proceedings would be warranted even if Clinton's only offense is perjury for his sworn statement in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual harassment case. Though he denied perjuring himself, Clinton gave that allegation new weight by acknowledging a "not appropriate" relationship with Lewinsky.

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