WASHINGTON -- Delivering his most contrite public comments to date regarding his actions in the Monica Lewinsky matter, President Clinton asked for forgiveness from a group of Democratic supporters yesterday, saying he had let them down but hoped to redeem their trust.
"I've done my best to be your friend, but I also let you down," Clinton said at a political fund-raiser in Orlando, Fla.
"And I let my family down and I let this country down. But I'm trying to make it right.
"And I'm determined never to let anything like that happen again."
Biting his lower lip, which he often does when trying to convey his most heartfelt emotions, Clinton asked for "your understanding, for your forgiveness on this journey we're on."
Before an audience that applauded generously and offered a standing ovation at the end, the president said, "I hope this will be a time of reconciliation and healing, and I hope that millions of families all over America are in a way growing stronger because of this."
On a day of fast-moving Lewinsky-related developments, Clinton's comments nearly dovetailed with the momentous delivery of the investigative report of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr to Capitol Hill, outlining possible impeachable offenses committed by Clinton.
The 36 boxes, delivered to Congress in two vans, will be kept in a secure room until the House passes a resolution, probably tomorrow, determining how the materials will be dealt with by the House of Representatives, Speaker Newt Gingrich said.
The delivery of the report, dreaded for months by the White House, marks the beginning of what could be a protracted and wrenching impeachment process on Capitol Hill and the gravest constitutional crisis since Watergate nearly a quarter-century ago.
Clinton's remarks yesterday followed a strategy session with his advisers earlier in the week on how to mend fences with disgruntled congressional Democrats.
Chastened by consequences
His words appeared to be the latest installment of an evolving mea culpa in which the president is apologizing with increasing fervor almost daily and trying to convince the nation that he has been chastened by the consequences of his own misdeeds.
His words, and a meeting yesterday with House Democratic leaders, seemed designed to bolster support in his own party, where more and more lawmakers have distanced themselves from Clinton or even denounced his actions.
On Tuesday, for instance, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening skipped an education event with the president in Silver Spring.
He also recently canceled an October fund-raiser that Clinton was to attend, citing the president's failure as a moral leader.
At his White House meeting with Democrats yesterday, Clinton expressed sorrow for causing pain in his family and throughout the country.
Rep. David E. Bonior of Michigan, the second-ranking Democrat in the House, said he urged Clinton to repeatedly convey to the public the contrition and sorrow that the president had expressed privately to them.
The president appeared to follow those instructions, offering yesterday's words of remorse at the last minute and composing the remarks himself, according to a White House aide.
But it may have been too late.
"I wish he had said what he said today on Aug. 17," said Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who has been a friend and staunch ally of the president.
"If he had said it then, there would be a different climate in America today."
The comments marked Clinton's fourth public quasi-apology for the Lewinsky scandal since his Aug. 17 televised address to the nation that was roundly denounced as inadequate by both Republicans and Democrats.
In that speech, Clinton acknowledged that he had had an intimate relationship with the former White House intern, but he also attacked Starr and appeared more defiant than remorseful.
Yesterday's remarks before Florida Democratic donors were markedly different in tone from the Aug. 17 address and all subsequent comments, including those Clinton delivered on Martha's Vineyard, at a news conference in Russia and last week in Ireland.
Emotional and contrite
Appearing more emotional and contrite than before, Clinton said these days "have been the toughest days of my life, but they may turn out to be the most valuable for me and my family."
"And," he added, "I have no one to blame but myself for my self-inflicted wounds."
Clinton noted that he had visited an elementary school in Orlando earlier yesterday where he encountered a boy along a rope line who told him he wanted to grow up to be "a president like you."
"And I thought, I want to be able to conduct my life and my presidency so that all the parents of the country could feel good if their children were able to say that again," Clinton said to applause.
"I'll never forget that little boy. And it's a big guide for me."
Last night, at another fund-raiser, in Coral Gables, Clinton again asked a sympathetic audience for forgiveness.
"I've had to ask for things that I was more in the habit of giving in my life than asking for in terms of understanding and forgiveness," he said.
"I've tried to do a good job taking care of this country even when I haven't taken such good care of myself and my family, my obligations. I hope that you and others will forgive me for the mistakes I've made."
Pub Date: 9/10/98