Clinton's Moment of Reckoning

The president pursues strategy of contrition and focusing on issues to resurrect standing

Bill Clinton's career is a history of return from crises that would have buried a less determined politician. Now, as he faces the darkest hours of his public life, he will need every ounce of his famed comeback skill to avoid being cast out of office into the wilderness of ex-presidential disgrace where Richard Nixon long wandered.

Contrition may well be the most important part of Mr. Clinton's current strategy, say experts and former administration aides. Specifically, if he cannot convince congressional Democrats that he is truly sorry for what he has wrought, Clinton may see support from his own party crumble. Democratic leaders already worry privately that pessimism and despair about the upcoming election are racing through their ranks.

Definition will likely be another aspect of the White House defense. Once details of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report become public - which could happen as early as today - Clinton allies will begin the spin battle to define and shape public opinion as to what the whole controversy is about.

Recognition of the dangers of the situation might be a final aspect of Clinton's actions. The president's attempts to project an image of business-as-usual, by promoting his school agenda and other agenda items, has become "almost a parody," says Clinton's ex-chief of staff Leon Panetta.

But after a period of self-denial, Clinton may now see where he must devote his energies. "When the torpedo's coming at you, you can't worry where the chairs are located," says Panetta.

The contrition part of the defense strategy was in operation even before Mr. Starr dispatched his 36 boxes of documents and supporting material to Capitol Hill in a surprise move on Wednesday afternoon.

First, he apologized to congressional Democratic leaders during an emotional morning White House meeting. Next, he publicly said he was sorry to a group of Democratic donors in Orlando, Fla. He made further amends at an evening money-raising event in Miami.

Next on the I'm-so-sorry agenda: Senate Democrats.

"In the White House there is a good feeling about the president's remarks in Florida," says one administration official. "He was contrite and strong.... That sends an important signal."

Congressional Democrats are the main target of Clinton's apologies because they are now the most important constituency he has. If impeachment proceedings are seen as simply a partisan witch hunt on the part of Republicans alone, the country is unlikely to support removal of the president from office. Thus, preventing party defections is undoubtedly a top Clinton priority.

BUT building trust with Democratic lawmakers may be difficult. From the beginning of his centrist presidency, Clinton treated many liberal Democrats like difficult stepchildren, ignoring them on issues such as free-trade expansion. Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, says now that it is clear they have been misled about Clinton's relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, "many Democrats are in a blind rage" and "out for blood."

Furthermore, a constant stream of apologetics risks an appearance of weakness and could send a message to the public that Clinton is not focused on the business of running the government. And after a certain number of apologies, where does contrition lead?

"Each additional apology is diminished from the one that preceded it," says Michael Johnston, a political science professor at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.

One way to strengthen Clinton's apologies would be to echo them via first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who could publicly say she has forgiven her husband for his transgressions. At time of writing, Mrs. Clinton was scheduled to introduce her husband at a Washington fund-raiser on Sept. 10.

Apologies are a defensive aspect of the White House strategy. Definition of the coming debate would be an offensive aspect. Insisting on what a controversy should truly be about is a time-honored principle of Washington crisis management. It represents the fine line where "spin" meets advocacy.

Would congressional impeachment hearings be about possible crimes, or merely about sins, for instance? Are those hearings partisan? How should the evidence in Starr's report be judged? If the White House says nothing about these things, administration opponents are likely to put forth answers to all these questions that paint Clinton in the worst possible light.

Definition is already occurring, in the sense that White House aides are pointing out that Starr's report is not a compilation of facts vetted through a court procedure, but rather a prosecutor's compilation of raw evidence and testimony from witnesses who were not cross-examined by defense lawyers.

"We want to remind folks this is one side of the story," says an administration official.

The president's campaign to keep his job is also likely to include further forays into the country on policy matters, highlighting administration efforts on crime, education, and other issues.

The extent of such events remains to be seen. Some, such as ex-staffer Panetta, believe these appearances now have a strange sense of hollowness. But some on the White House staff see them as an essential part of the long-term effort to maintain public support.

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