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Jewish World Review / August 24, 1998 / 2 Elul, 5758

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Confess and attack:
Slick comes semi-clean

AT LAST THIS PRESIDENt has learned how to make a short speech. Shame is a great teacher, and brevity turns out to be the soul of contrition, too. But even at four minutes, the president's speech was about three minutes too long. For it was not only an apology, but an apologia. What a pity he didn't stop with the apology but had to append the usual attack and campaign ad.

Bubba before his 'speech'.
Once again our commander-in-chief reveals his lack of a military education. If he'd taken that ROTC course he once signed up for, maybe he would have learned to apologize and stop. The military formula is simple: "No excuse, sir.'' But instead of a simple "I'm sorry,'' he had to give the American people an "I'm sorry, but. ...'' It's a common error. And in the end, he wound up doing some lawyering, attacking the prosecutor who found him out and trying to change the subject to politics-as-usual. And a perfectly good apology was spoiled by all the excuses.

The lawyering alone raised more questions than it answered. For example, how can the president have had an "inappropriate relationship'' with a White House intern, but not an "affair''? Are some of his words valid for legal purposes only? Yes, it's been explained to us before, and by people we respect, that there is one truth in the courtroom and another outside, but I still don't believe it.

About midway through the president's apologia, an eerie feeling began to set in -- as if one were listening not to a man, but an automated replay of the latest poll results, namely: Bill Clinton is untrustworthy, Kenneth Starr is a zealot, and this whole thing has gone on too long. Sure enough, about a third of this theya-culpa seemed devoted to each poll finding, This empty president stopped inspiring anger long ago (one gets used to his dissembling, indeed bored with it), but he can still give you the creeps.

There was an almost nixonian resonance to Bill Clinton's angry words Monday night. "I am not a crook,'' Richard Milhous once assured us. While our current president gave a whole new meaning to sex, lies and videotape when, on Jan. 26, 1998, he looked into the cameras and, shaking his finger at the nation, set us straight: "I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.''

Bill Clinton's words Monday night were words of contrition, but the voice was the voice of anger -- and anger not so much with himself as with those who had caught him. In the end, the gist of this president's "apology'' was that the buck stops with Kenneth Starr. And, to think, this president used to invoke Harry Truman.

If the independent counsel has made mistakes -- and he certainly has, for no one could conduct such a wide-ranging investigation of so many scandals without making some mistakes -- Kenneth Starr's errors in judgment have been inspired by a zeal for his duty. Bill Clinton's mistakes have been inspired by a zeal for himself.

Our president's is a zeal for self-promotion, and then self-protection. And as usual the self-pity drips. That is familiar, too, from the Nixon Years. The argument will continue over whether Bill Clinton has been an effective and far-seeing president, and whether he has left the worlds a safer place, but surely no one now would say he has been an honorable president, or an honest man.

Even now, when he has begun to admit his lies, this president raises suspicions: What else has he lied about? Would he have confessed at all if the evidence hadn't begun to emerge? The problem with what the Nixon Gang used to call the modified, limited hangout is that it's hard to stop the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth from completely unrolling once the first admissions are made.

This scandal is no more about a sexual dalliance than Watergate was about a third-rate burglary; this is about lies and deceptions, denials and cover-ups, and just how far they extend. Before this thing is over, it could be about perjury, subornation, witness-tampering and obstruction of justice. That's for the law to decide. That's why we have courts, oaths and, yes, independent counsels. Let justice flow like a mighty stream; some it will wash, and others it will wash away. But let it flow and the truth be told. The Republic will not wither. On the contrary, it is not the truth, but lies, that undermine a republic.

Are the books being closed on this mess, or just opened? How many other revelations and confirmations await? And who's minding the store while the truth unfolds at its own, agonizing rate? Character, it turns out, is not so easy to separate from competence. This president is turning out to be a national distraction.

It is not time for the president's resignation, but what a refreshment, what a service to his own sense of self, if he were to submit it voluntarily. No one would doubt his sincerity then. Bill Clinton could still leave high office with the nation's sympathy, before it sours into resentment as the extent of his betrayals becomes clearer daily, even to many of those who once believed him. And he would finally have raised standards in the 1990s, not lowered them.


8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
8/12/98: The French would understand
8/10/98: A fable: The Rat in the Corner
8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
so what else is new?
7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
7/16/98: In defense of manners
7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate