ADDRESSING THE NATION
August 17, 1998
Following a day of unprecedented trestimony before Kenneth Starr's grand jury, President Clinton apologized to the American people for misleading them. But will they forgive him? Jim Lehrer discusses the speech and the day's events with syndicated columnist Mark Shields, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot, author and journalist Haynes Johnson, and former presidential adviser David Gergen.
JIM LEHRER: President Clinton speaking from the Map Room of the White House. Reaction and analysis now from NewsHour regulars Mark Shields, Paul Gigot, Haynes Johnson, and David Gergen. Haynes.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
August 17, 1998:
Full coverage of President Clinton's testimony and the speech to the American public.
August 17, 1998:
President Clinton speaks to the American public about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
August 17, 1998:
Terence Smith reports on the media's coverage of the Monica Lewinsky story.
August 17, 1998:
A discussion on the grand jury process.
August 13, 1998:
What impact will the Starr investigation have on the institution of of the presidency ?
July 30, 1998:
Should Clinton address the public about the Lewinsky matter?
July 28, 1998:
Ken Starr makes an immunity deal with Monica Lewinsky.
July 27, 1998:
Ken Starr subpoenas the president to testify in front of his grand jury
July 21, 1998:
A roundtable discussion on Chief Justice Rehnquist's decision not to interfere with the subpoenas of secret service agents.
The Washingtonpost.com's coverage of the Clinton investigation.
Paul Gigot: "It was more angry, more combative than I would have expected, and less apologetic, frankly."
HAYNES JOHNSON: Direct, straight, clear, forceful. He looked tired, but in command, and I have a feeling that he may have done himself a great deal of good. He took full responsibility. He asked between himself and God and family and saying himself how he’s wronged people and wronged the country. I must say I didn’t think he could deliver as effectively or as forcefully in so short a time as he appears to have done.
JIM LEHRER: Four minutes, around four minutes. Paul, what do you think?
PAUL GIGOT: It was more angry, more combative than I would have expected, and less apologetic, frankly. The time spent, the implication of attacking Ken Starr, blaming by implication his enemies took as much time in that speech as it did taking his own personal responsibility for it. I don’t know how that will play. But he didn’t go down with just one big apology. He was also on the offensive in that speech.
JIM LEHRER: Mark.
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, it’s interesting. When this began, the most formidable weapon the president had was Mrs. Clinton, when she said this is a matter between my husband and me, I have full confidence in my husband. And ironically I think that if he had made this same statement last January, his presidency might not have survived, that somehow this seven-month period. Tonight he perhaps has a chance to save his presidency, which he didn’t have then. I thought he was not as remorseful as I thought he would be, or should be. And I think that he has now tried to cast it and re-cast it as a private tragedy for which he accepts full responsibility but he’s putting it in private terms again, just as she did then, rather than President of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, and a 21-year-old intern. I thought he went very quickly by the relationship, and that’s obviously the strategy.
JIM LEHRER: David.
DAVID GERGEN: Jim, this was a speech that flew on two wings, and on one of those wings I think he was very successful and deserved an awful lot of credit, and that was he finally came forward, admitted that he had had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, took full responsibility, and apologized to the country. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s finally here, and thank God for it. I think we’re all better off. It’s finally come. I disagree with Mark. I think we would have been better off if he had done it a long time ago. The other wing of the speech that surprised me was that he tried to sweep away all the rest of this investigation as if this was entirely a private matter; that there are no legal implications to this speech—to this behavior. And that’s exactly, of course, what Ken Starr has been trying to investigate. And I think that—the president was very clever, but I’m not sure that piece of it will work. I think the rest of it works very well--but cleverly trying to use a speech to say not only do I apologize but let this end it on the legal side as well.
Ready to forgive, or at least forget?
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
MARK SHIELDS: Just to correct David. I did not say, David, that he should not have given it seven months ago. I think if he had given it seven months ago, the country might not have been as ready to forgive him.
JIM LEHRER: Why do you say that, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, because I think then, Jim, it was such a terrible shock. If it had come out then, there wouldn’t have been any sense of rallying to him. I think there really is seven months later a sense of wanting to get this over, which there was not at the time. And, quite frankly, the press, we overran this story, and the president became almost a sympathetic figure for a good part of the seven months. And I think that’s a major, major difference. But I really don’t know if I agree with Haynes and David that this is going to make it. There was in the president’s statement that willingness to turn on his critics and his prosecutors, and to try again to make them the heavy in the drama.
JIM LEHRER: You’re nodding, Paul.
PAUL GIGOT: I agree completely with that. The fact that it’s been going on for seven months, he never really explained why. He said he wanted to avoid personal embarrassment. But he had his cabinet members, his women cabinet members, go out there and say it wasn’t true. He had his wife go out there and say it wasn’t true. There wasn’t a sense of real shame. And this was a shameful moment. And I don’t think that that came through. Instead, it came through, what I’ve been hearing from other people about his real feelings, which is he’s mad—he feels that he’s been cornered into this. And I don’t know that that’s going to really be the kind of thing that gets the public to forgive him.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes.
HAYNES JOHNSON: You’re right. There was a sort of angry, defiant tone to the way he spoke. I’m not revising my remarks here. But—and I think that was true—but I also think there was something interesting about it. The one thing that struck me most, when he said, I take responsibility for myself, it was selfish of me, not that I hurt my wife or child or child, the whole litany was about me, saving myself first, that was why—his rationale for this. But I also think that the country really wants this behind it. And so that’s where I think he may have struck some—
JIM LEHRER: And you think this speech can do that?
HAYNES JOHNSON: No.
JIM LEHRER: This four minutes?
HAYNES JOHNSON: No, it will not. And there are so many—look, we—there’s no end game, once we use the clichés in this thing. We don’t even have the transcript yet of what was said in the testimony. We don’t know what Ken Starr is going to do. We don’t know what the Congress is going to do. There are going to be millions of questions that flow out of this, none of which was answered tonight. And that remains down the road, but I think that he may have gone down the road, at least a beginning, an opening process, by which you can build on the future. If he just leaves it at this, though, that’s not good enough.
A betrayal of fellow Democrats?
DAVID GERGEN: If you don’t mind—if you will indulge me just taking up for one moment the seven months ago question—
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
DAVID GERGEN: Because I think it goes straight to the heart of what this is about. The price he paid for not coming forward seven months ago was that he lied to you and then he lied very emphatically to the—
JIM LEHRER: In an interview that I did.
DAVID GERGEN: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: On the 21st of January.
DAVID GERGEN: Exactly. And then he sought out an opportunity to come to the country and wag his finger and say, listen up, listen to me, I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky. Now, a lot of us tried to believe him and gave him benefit of that. And I think a lot of people are much more willing to forgive him on the sex, which, you know, there are a few of us who are saints in this world who should throw stones on those questions, but when he’s President of the United States, when he comes forward to the country and makes that kind of emphatic statement and then we go through this circus over the last seven months, you cannot sweep that away and say, sorry about that, let’s go on.
JIM LEHRER: Mark, what about his reasons that he gave tonight for doing that seven months ago?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I don’t—obviously anybody caught in such a situation would want to protect himself. I was glad that he mentioned himself—his own embarrassment first, his own family, his daughter.
JIM LEHRER: That had a ring of candor to it.
MARK SHIELDS: That had a real ring of candor, and I congratulate him for that. But I have to say that an awful lot of people, Jim, there’s a sense of betrayal. People on Capitol Hill—
JIM LEHRER: Like who? I don’t mean names, but what kind of folks?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, Democrats—Democrats who went to bat for him, Democrats who defended him, who went on the attack against his critics and said it was unfair and all the rest of it. The people, Jim, in the White House, Betty Currie, the legal bills run up by the uniformed Secret Service.
JIM LEHRER: Betty Currie is the president’s private secretary.
MARK SHIELDS: The president’s personal secretary. I mean, all sorts of interns at the White House who had to appear before—and this is no way either condoning, absolving, or saluting Ken Starr—but, I mean, if, in fact, there had been candor in January, I’m simply saying that the intervening seven months, there is a sense, I agree with Haynes, people wanting to put it behind them, which there wasn’t in January.
JIM LEHRER: There wasn’t anything to put behind them in January, was there?
MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. That’s right. And we’ve had seven months of cheapening, a coarsening of the public debate, Jim, a really a corrosion of our public life.
JIM LEHRER: Well, let’s talk about that issue right now, Paul, that whatever anybody might think about what the president did or didn’t do tonight, did he give them enough excuse to get this thing off the table?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, there’s no question—
JIM LEHRER: For that reason, the reason that Mark just laid out.
PAUL GIGOT: That’s the biggest asset he has right now, is I think people do feel disgusted. They feel embarrassed; they feel they have to turn off the radio when they’re in the car with their kids. They feel they have to explain things that they never thought they’d have to explain about a president. A lot of the polling shows that older Americans don’t believe it because they can’t believe a president would be capable of behaving that way. So that’s really going for him. But what he did—and I think David made this point—is he made here a partial admission, but he’s seeking total political and legal absolution. And I’m not so sure that that gamble is going to work.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, where—who gives him absolution? Who is he seeking absolution from with this four minutes tonight?
PAUL GIGOT: From the American public, for the American public to say to Ken Starr, get off the case, or if it goes to Congress to say to the Congress and the Republicans get off the case.
HAYNES JOHNSON: And I think what he’s got going for him—maybe he doesn’t deserve it, given the history of these last seven or eight months, is the feeling that it is entirely a story of betrayal all across the board, not just the people who work for the president, or his cabinet, or the loyal people who are in debt up to their eyeballs yet, and so forth, but the people who believed him in the Congress, the people who voted for him, everybody in this whole story betrayed everybody else. Monica betrays the president and talks about him all over the place. I mean, Linda Tripp betrays her friend. Lucianne Goldberg sets it up and calls and they send it over to the grand jury or to the Paula Jones lawyers. The whole country—
JIM LEHRER: American journalism turns just a little bit putrid?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Of course, of course, the law and journalism, everybody looks bad in this story, and I think the country understands that. Now whether he can ride that through—but I think that’s—
JIM LEHRER: But do you agree, that’s what he’s got going for him?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes, I do.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think, David?
DAVID GERGEN: I think that’s absolutely right, and I think the president is right on that. Everybody has acted badly and been hurt in this. But I think it’s a very interesting and clever, in some ways, strategy, and that is the second part of this speech, trying to say, this is enough, let’s turn this behind, in effect, is rallying his supporters, which he will do very effectively. They’re going to come to his aid on this now.
Appealing to his base.
JIM LEHRER: But, I mean, the people who have stood with him are now going to say, okay, you’re—
DAVID GERGEN: They’re going to be sad. They’re going to be disillusioned that this happened, but I think they will--when he threw down the gauntlet to Starr, that will rally them. That is the kind of thing to which there’s a lot of resonance in the country. Starr has gone too far. He’s very unpopular, and he’s trying to energize—
JIM LEHRER: I may be bad but Ken Starr is worse?
DAVID GERGEN: Yes. That’s right. He’s energizing the anti-Starr forces, which are very large in the country. And I think he may well get a majority behind him. There will be a vocal minority who say this is not over. There are reports tonight he did not answer all the questions today in the grand jury proceeding. There are reports tonight that Mr. Starr wants to go back possibly and ask more questions.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. There’s an Associated Press story here which says that several sources say prosecutors have reserved the right to call the president back for additional testimony, because he gave general answers to some specific questions about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
DAVID GERGEN: And I think the president as a political matter is trying to energize the anti-Starr people in his own camp to stand up now, see if he can get the 60/65 percent, and, in effect, dare Starr and the Republicans to try to do anything more.
PAUL GIGOT: He’s also trying to avoid Democratic erosion, but I’m not so sure that he is going to be as successful as David, because—at least not until the Starr report is out—
DAVID GERGEN: That may be.
PAUL GIGOT: --because right now there is still the jeopardy of suborning perjury and we don’t know what the president didn’t answer, what questions he didn’t answer, and a lot of Democrats, having been lied to once, are going to be a lot more cautious about coming to the barricades again.
Mark Shields: "Everybody is going to be looking at Mrs. Clinton."
JIM LEHRER: All right. Mark, let’s do the hard part now. Scenarios—what happens next? I mean, everybody said, okay, now, this can’t be it; there’s got to be another step. Who takes them and what are they?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, the first mistake I see the White House making is tomorrow morning. If the next visual—after this remorseful presentation tonight--the next visual we have of the president is on a golf cart at Martha’s Vineyard on his way to a dinner party, giggling with Jack Welch of GE and Vernon Jordan in a foursome, there’s going to be a serious question of how sincere. I mean, I think, first of all, the president ought to repair to Camp David with Mrs. Clinton. You asked the question who gives him forgiveness. Mrs. Clinton has been his official forgiver throughout his entire career. She has been the person who made this possible to be thought of initially as a personal family matter of her husband, rather than the most powerful man in the world and a 21-year-old intern. If it had been ever seen publicly in that way, his presidency would be over, quite frankly. She was the one who was able to go on the Today Show and say in a seven-minute interview 21 times, "My husband," so her forgiveness, the daughter’s forgiveness, and acceptance, is very important, and then I think you’re—
JIM LEHRER: Excuse me. Let me stop you there. Is it out of the question to expect that maybe within the next day or two Mrs. Clinton might do it again, that she might make a public statement? Is that what you’re talking about?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, I think Mrs. Clinton—everybody is going to be looking at Mrs. Clinton. Mrs. Clinton—I mean, you know, the list of those who have been betrayed over the past seven months, she’s all by herself. I mean, she went forward. She was his defender. She did frame the case for him in January. And she’s the one that said, you know, I believe my husband; this didn’t happen. She said it was a vast right wing conspiracy. She said this was people who hated Arkansas or never accepted Arkansas. You know, now part of that, undoubtedly, was hyperbole and loyalty, but still those were the words of somebody who believed her husband hadn’t done it. So, I mean, that sense of betrayal—but I think that there’s a sense of betrayal—if you followed this fellow—I remember David Gergen telling the most wonderful story when he worked for him. Bill Clinton would sit in a briefing—a most arcane, esoteric subject with experts and as they were doing it, listening to that briefing, he would do The New York Times crossword puzzle, the Sunday crossword puzzle in ink, and then—which nobody does—I mean, some people do—maybe Gergen does—
JIM LEHRER: Gergen does.
DAVID GERGEN: I don’t even do it in pencil. (laughter among group)
MARK SHIELDS: Twenty minutes into the interview, Jim, according to David, he would then ask the one trenchant question that nobody in the room had even thought of. I mean, that kind of ability, that kind of charm, and that’s all squandered. I mean, we sit here tonight asking, can that presidency be saved—I mean, the power of the president, the power to persuade—that power is gone!
JIM LEHRER: All right. What do you think could happen next? What will the Republicans do now, Paul?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think that the Republicans sit and wait.
JIM LEHRER: For what?
PAUL GIGOT: They wait for Ken Starr’s report. And they’ll be cautious. I don’t think you’ll see many of them standing up and saying this is the end of it. I don’t think this is the speech that Orrin Hatch thinks—had said in advance was going to allow him to give absolution.
JIM LEHRER: Why? What’s not there?
PAUL GIGOT: Because it really wasn’t—it really wasn’t all that remorseful, frankly, and it really wasn’t all that candid. There’s a whole—
JIM LEHRER: Nor that long. It wasn’t very long either.
PAUL GIGOT: There was a whole part of this investigation that he never even touched on. I think that we can expect Mrs. Clinton to come out in the next couple of days. This speech suggested to me that they are back on attack, and I think she will be coming into fly as his wing man once more.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see that happening, Haynes?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes, I do, and I would not be surprised at all if that happens. I also think there’s something else. The scenario you asked about—a lot depends on Ken Starr now. Does he haul the president back and ask him more questions about his sex life? That won’t go well with the country, I don’t think. So that’s—the second thing I think—what Mark said was very important about being a penitent. I think the appearances of the president now—if he really has this contrition and he’s gone through this confessional, he has to show it, not just go off to Martha’s Vineyard and play golf and so forth. I mean, going up the mountaintop is not a bad idea, as a matter of fact, and show that you really are going to sort of take stock of yourself.
JIM LEHRER: He said, in fact, I’m going to do everything in my power to repair—I don’t remember the exact words—but to repair this and put this behind us.
HAYNES JOHNSON: And all I’m saying it’s in his hands, the appearances of by which he conducts himself, how he speaks and how he’s seen now in the public eye is extremely important to me on both levels—Starr on the one hand and then the president, himself, on the other.
JIM LEHRER: David.
DAVID GERGEN: Jim, if for the next two weeks or so, until we hear the Starr report, the conversation is what kind of standard should we expect from our president, is it acceptable to have this kind of behavior in the Oval Office, was it acceptable to a lot of the country, then I think the president will face continuing problems and will face more after the Starr reports end. If, on the other hand, the president is successful at refocusing the debate, as I think he was trying to do tonight, to say, I’ve apologized, now enough is enough, and we have a debate about—isn’t it time to put this behind us, which is what I think he wants—if that’s the debate, the president has won this; he’s definitely survived; and he will—and Republicans will have a very, very hard time pursuing it further.
JIM LEHRER: How does he keep further specific questions from being asked in public? Can he do that by his behavior, by staying off the golf course, so to speak?
DAVID GERGEN: Well, I think Mark has made a real perceptive comment. This is not a great time to be going off to Martha’s Vineyard. I would think the press will have some additional questions for him, but we’ll have to see what the reports hold in the press about, you know, did he—how forthcoming was he in the grand jury—is there really room for Starr to come back? And he is clearly throwing down the gauntlet to Ken Starr. He is clearly throwing down the gauntlet to the Republicans—enough is enough.
A punishment short of impeachment?
JIM LEHRER: Do you see it that way too, Mark, that the next move really in some ways beyond what you’ve said about the president, is also up to Ken Starr?
MARK SHIELDS: I think it is, Jim, and I think that, you know, the president had to go on tonight, because he had to beat Ken Starr to the leak. I mean, you know, that’s a grand jury that has been a colander of stories coming out of it from those running the grand jury. So there’s no question—we’ll be filled and there will be stories about what the president did or didn’t say, so he had to get his story out tonight and put that—yes, the country does want it behind them; they’re sick of the story. It’s a debilitating story; it’s a lousy story to cover. It’s a lousy story to read about. It’s a lousy story to listen to. So I think that that’s a real yearning, but your question about the Republicans, the Republicans right now, they want a wounded Bill Clinton in the White House going into the elections of 1998 and preparing for the year 2000. They don’t want impeachment, because the country is not ready for impeachment on this. I think the question now becomes: Is there some sanction--because a president lying to the American people, going unsanctioned in any way, is there some sanction short of the capital punishment, or the nuclear blow of impeachment, which I don’t think is in the cards, that would be appropriate to help get this behind us, beyond the president’s own apology?
JIM LEHRER: That’s an interesting question. Is there such a thing, Paul?
PAUL GIGOT: There hasn’t been. The Congress censures people, but it’s usually its own members. They impeach judges on occasion. I think the problem the president has right now is that this story with this speech and this event, this admission, is not merely now about his standards; it is also about ours and our political standards. And that is something the Congress is going to have to consider, and I think that one measure of accountability is public knowledge. So, at a minimum, Republicans are going to want to get that—
JIM LEHRER: Have hearings on it?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, if not hearings, they’re at least going to get that report public. The story has to be out. The final remorse, if you will, is being totally honest, and that’s more than a four-minute speech. And that means Ken Starr’s report being out. Whether or not—the big decision Republicans will have to make is, do we take that report and then have a resolution of inquiry to start impeachment hearings, and I don’t know what they’ll do with that. It’ll depend a lot on the polls, frankly.
HAYNES JOHNSON: I think there is a likelihood down the road that you see a resolution of censure to this president for the conduct, for disgracing the office, and bringing shame upon his presidency, and then let’s see what happens. I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see that happen.
JIM LEHRER: Is that—do you see that happening, David?
DAVID GERGEN: I think that the Congress may well come to a vote, but I bet the president has 60 percent behind him, as he heads into something like that.
JIM LEHRER: With the public? And that will control what happens in the Congress?
DAVID GERGEN: This tonight was an effort to mobilize the public behind him as he faces the turmoil ahead. And I think that from his point of view, it was in some ways because of the defiant nature of the speech, he didn’t mind dividing people, saying, you people who are against me are always going to be against me, forget it, I’m going to mobilize the people I want with me, and I’ll beat you.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. We’ll see if that works. Thank you all four very much.