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This did not stop every armchair orator from writing the speech last week: I'm sorry I lied. I was protecting the privacy of my wife and daughter in an area in which people always keep things private. I didn't think I should be answering these questions in the first place because the underlying lawsuit was bunk, which has been borne out by its dismissal. Having to make this confession is humiliating, a punishment in itself. I still want to do the job you elected me to, and think I can do it well. [Aside to Congress] Impeach me for this, if you dare.
The notion that Clinton had to offer some more textured explanation for the growing pile of evidence was coming even from old White House hands. "He owes it to the American people to tell them," said former chief of staff Leon Panetta. "This is not one you do in an interview. This is not one you do in a press conference. This one, you have to look straight in the eye of the American people and tell them."
That mea culpa would take some of the drama and steam out of the Aug. 17 appearance. It would affect public opinion, which would affect congressional opinion, which would affect the chances for impeachment and possibly Starr's own calculations. If any President has the communication skills to pull off this high-wire act, Clinton does. But that assumes that he and his wife could muster the will to set aside their loathing of Ken Starr long enough to ask for his mercy.
And it assumes there is some chance Starr would give it. For Starr has known all along that the report he sends to Congress has to be about more than adulterous mischief in the Oval Office. Over the course of his four-year investigation, he has come to view the whole White House operation as a vast criminal conspiracy, full of deception and evasion, from Whitewater to Filegate to Travelgate to Monica. Even if the public continues to assume that Clinton sinned and has forgiven him for it, Starr has many other charges he is pursuing, and it would be up to Congress to decide whether they merit further investigation.
As far as White House insiders go, the whole Jimmy Swaggart confession scenario was something of a national parlor game, not a live option. "The best thing to expect right now is our standard operating procedure," said an adviser. "He goes in, testifies and issues a brief one-sentence statement. That's the way we've done it in the past, and unfortunately, we've got a lot of experience in this." But there may be nothing standard about this operation anymore; Clinton's lawyers will have to be at least as hard on him as Starr will be, make him address every inconsistency and explain every gesture and visit and phone call that suggests that Lewinsky was no ordinary intern. For hours on end, they will force him to confront himself.
For now, though, the polls provide some evidence that Clinton's "less is more" strategy is still serving him well. The TIME/CNN poll showed his approval ratings holding steady at 62%, even as most people conclude he is lying through his teeth: 60% believe he had an affair, up from 48% in January. The findings bolstered the arguments of those who suggested that Clinton was right when he declared on Friday in the Rose Garden that "No one wants to get this matter behind us more than I do, except maybe all the rest of the American people."