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Clinton Admits to Deception

He Calls Relationship With Lewinsky 'Wrong'

In TV Talk, He Voices Regrets, but Challenges Scope of Inquiry

August 18, 1998|ELIZABETH SHOGREN and RONALD J. OSTROW | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — 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."

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