WASHINGTON — The White House is enjoying the rarefied, scandal-free air of political life without the Paula Jones case, something it has not known for months. But a Kenneth Starr-induced smog still hangs over the horizon.
As early as mid-May, Mr. Starr will release the final report on his investigation into allegations of a cover-up in the Monica Lewinsky matter. President Clinton could be back to scandal square one. Media reports this week say large portions of the report have already been prepared.
Unofficially, some senior staff have not given up on the idea of a press conference to preempt Starr and clear the air. The president could make good on his statement of almost three months ago, when the he said the "the American people have a right to get answers [about his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky] .... we will give you as many answers as we can, as soon as we can ... And that's not a dodge."
Officially, and more realistically, legal considerations make such a press conference unlikely. But that hasn't curbed outside observers from pushing the plan.
"Even though it's very late ... I do believe that if he were to provide a greater accountability it would be helpful," says David Gergen, a former Clinton adviser who also served several other presidents, including Richard Nixon.
"I think he has been diminished by this, and the stain is going to be there for a long time," Mr. Gergen says.
But there are legal concerns. What ever Mr. Clinton says would have to square with what he said in his Paul Jones deposition and with the facts collected from a parade of witnesses continuing to pass before a grand jury here.
"We are dealing with a legal issue and a political issue. Bill Clinton is trying to preserve his political case," says Michael Genovese at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, author of "The Paradoxes of the American Presidency."
"Whatever he says is going to be picked apart. There is a really a good argument in political terms not to spill the beans. The more you reveal, the more you give your adversaries to use against you," Mr. Genovese says.
Add the legal complexities to the absence of a public outcry for an explanation and the tactic of executive silence is clearly defensible.
"We think the president is pursuing the proper course at this time," says Jim Kennedy, special adviser to the White House counsel. "The president has answered the important questions and we really don't have the impression the American people are saying they want to hear more about this whole thing," Mr. Kennedy says.
Still, Clinton's personal approval ratings in the mid-40 percent range (well below his job-approval ratings, in the mid-60 percent range) have suffered in the shadow of the allegations that threaten to become a central part of his presidential legacy.
Advocates of the clear-the-air strategy say that an explanation now would make the Starr report "old news." It might also fend off increasingly Republican attacks, including the one this week by House majority leader Richard Armey, who called Clinton's actions in the Lewinsky matter "shameless".
Former White House adviser George Stephanopolous added his call for the president to speak out. "Now is a golden moment for the president," Mr. Stephanopolous said this week. "He should come forward, do the press conference, say whatever happened with Monica Lewinsky. Nothing would do more to neutralize Starr."
But even advocates of this approach disagree on the timing. "Once the Starr investigation is over and the report is filed, then the president should respond and have a televised press conference and put things to rest," says political scientist Robert Gilbert at Northeastern University in Boston. "It's a big story that has left its imprint on his administration and it deserves some kind of statement or explanation," Mr. Gilbert says.
But Gergen says it's too late. "[Clinton] and the White House pretty much missed the timing. I'm still in favor of accountability but the dynamic has changed," says the former presidential adviser.