WASHINGTON -- With his impeachment by the House appearing imminent, President Clinton made an urgent personal appeal to Congress yesterday, saying he would welcome a formal censure for his "errors of word and deed."
Though he did not mention impeachment directly, Clinton was clearly trying to head off the possibility that the House would stain him as only the second American president to be impeached.
Minutes after his somber appearance in the Rose Garden, the House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to approve an article of impeachment accusing Clinton of perjury before a federal grand jury. Later in the day and last night, the committee approved two additional articles of impeachment, charging him with perjury in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct case and with obstruction of justice.
The president knew he could not head off those votes in the committee. His remarks were aimed instead at a handful of publicly undecided Republicans and Democrats who will hold in their hands the fate of his administration when the full House votes next week. Clinton's speech came amid frantic efforts by his aides and allies to sway those House members.
"What I want the American people to know, what I want the Congress to know is that I am profoundly sorry for all I have done wrong in words and deeds," Clinton said, his voice restrained, his tone grave. "I never should have misled the country, the Congress, my friends or my family. Quite simply, I gave in to my shame.
"I have been condemned by my accusers with harsh words. And while it's hard to hear yourself called deceitful and manipulative, I remember Ben Franklin's admonition that our critics are our friends, for they do show us our faults."
Clinton had been under intense pressure to address the nation and demonstrate publicly that he has come to recognize the magnitude of his misdeeds in concealing his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Many House members who have not yet decided how they will vote on impeachment said they would accept nothing short of a confession of illegal acts -- even if, for Clinton, that meant risking criminal prosecution once he leaves office.
"I am looking for an honorable reason not to vote for the president's impeachment," declared retiring Rep. Paul McHale of Pennsylvania, the only House Democrat who has called for Clinton's resignation. "If the president drops his 'I didn't lie' defense and admits to deliberately providing false information under oath and credibly promises never to deceive the nation again -- if the president does all three of those, I would vote for censure."
It is far from clear, however, that Republican leaders will ever permit a resolution of censure to come to a vote in the full House.
Even before the speech, some of the president's allies said he needed to put himself at personal risk to rescue his presidency. Rep. David E. Skaggs of Colorado, a retiring Democrat who opposes impeachment, urged Clinton to put aside his "selfish and indulgent concern about criminal liability later on."
"His immediate problem is the problem he should be solving, and the way he solves it is coming clean and admitting he lied under oath," Skaggs said. "That is not the same as admitting perjury."
The White House had drafted a statement of contrition in which Clinton would have said: "I understand today how reasonable people could read from my testimony in the Jones case and conclude I crossed the line. I tried not to, but that is no excuse."
But the president evidently decided against going that far toward acknowledging that he made some false statements under oath. Ultimately, his statement fell well short of a confession of illegality. Aside from his explicit acceptance of a congressional censure, Clinton did not go much further than his past statements of contrition, though he may have sounded somewhat more humble.
Many Republicans were unmoved, and some even proclaimed that Clinton's statement actually proved the need to impeach.
"The president refuses to acknowledge that he broke the law," fumed Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the third-ranking Republican in the House and the leader of the impeachment drive.
"He refuses to accept responsibility for his illegal acts. This last-ditch effort to influence undecided members of Congress is an insult to their intelligence and the intelligence of all Americans."
Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, one of only a half-dozen House Republicans who publicly oppose impeachment, said: "I was disappointed. It was what I hoped he wouldn't do. It makes it harder for members of Congress to do what I think is the right thing to do, and he makes me think he still doesn't get it."
Even Democrats said they feared that Clinton's comments would not stave off an impeachment that they say has begun to assume the air of inevitability.
"I think the president made a fulsome apology," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer, a committee Democrat, a senator-elect from New York and an outspoken supporter of the president. "I think it will make a difference to American people who already want us to move on. Unfortunately, the views of the American people have had little effect."
It is not clear that Clinton's speech could have helped him no matter what he said, said Rep. Michael N. Castle of Delaware, a moderate Republican who remains undecided.
Had the president confessed to a federal felony, some House members might have believed that, notwithstanding his candor, they would have no choice but to impeach. Such a statement might also have tilted enough votes in the Senate toward convicting Clinton of the House's charges and removing him from office.
"If I were the president, I'd be a little bit cautious about confessing to a crime," Castle warned. "He's in a Catch-22 situation."
In addition, Castle said, "I don't think the president coming out and begging for forgiveness is reason for us to give him absolution."
If Clinton is to avoid the stain of impeachment, he will have to win by persuasion and old-fashioned lobbying. But the tide is moving against him. Yesterday, four Republicans -- Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, Saxby Chambliss Georgia and Richard H. Baker of Louisiana -- all said they would vote to impeach. The White House had considered all four to be potential swing votes, though none is considered especially moderate.
White House lobbying may have, in effect, flushed out the four lawmakers. Once they were publicly mentioned as wavering votes, their offices were flooded by angry conservatives who prodded them to announce their positions.
"While I find the personal conduct of the president utterly disgusting, the larger issue is his highly orchestrated campaign of lies, half-truths and evasiveness that show an incredible disregard for the rule of law in our society," Chambliss said. "After serious deliberation and prayer, I believe the only reasonable course of action is for the House of Representatives to move toward impeachment."
The White House mobilized yesterday to try to stave off further such declarations. Castle said he has been contacted by a Clinton Cabinet secretary, though he declined to identify which one.
Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County, one of the most liberal Republicans in Congress, spoke with Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Clinton ally whom White House officials had asked to intercede with Morella. She remains officially undecided, though Morella has said she knows of no presidential offenses she considers impeachable.
John Podesta, Clinton's chief of staff, spoke with House Speaker-designate Robert L. Livingston, trying to persuade him to allow a House vote next week on a censure resolution. A Livingston aide said the Louisiana Republican would not decide whether to do so until the Judiciary Committee completes its work this weekend.
White House aides have also urged business leaders to warn individual House members of potential economic instability stemming from an impeachment.
"There are a lot of people who are either friends or supporters of the president," said Joe Lockhart, Clinton's spokesman. "I'm sure they are making their views known."
House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt spent the day trying to shore up support for Clinton among 31 Democrats who voted in October, along with Republicans, to begin an impeachment inquiry.
But the president's own appeal was supposed to be the White House's silver bullet, and Clinton seemed to try mightily yesterday to convey contrition.
"I understand that accountability demands consequences," Clinton intoned, formally embracing a censure. "And I'm prepared to accept them. Painful as the condemnation of Congress would be, it would pale in comparison to the consequences of the pain I have caused my family. There is no greater agony."
The president's remarks
Text of President Clinton's remarks on impeachment yesterday, as transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House:
As anyone close to me knows, for months I have been grappling with how best to reconcile myself to the American people, to acknowledge my own wrongdoing and still to maintain my focus on the work of the presidency.
Others are presenting my defense on the facts, the law and the Constitution. Nothing I can say now can add to that.
What I want the American people to know, what I want the Congress to know is that I am profoundly sorry for all I have done wrong in words and deeds.
I never should have misled the country, the Congress, my friends or my family. Quite simply, I gave in to my shame. I have been condemned by my accusers with harsh words.
And while it's hard to hear yourself called deceitful and manipulative, I remember Ben Franklin's admonition that our critics are our friends, for they do show us our faults.
Mere words cannot fully express the profound remorse I feel for ** what our country is going through and for what members of both parties in Congress are now forced to deal with. These past months have been a torturous process of coming to terms with what I did. I understand that accountability demands consequences, and I'm prepared to accept them.
Painful as the condemnation of the Congress would be, it would pale in comparison to the consequences of the pain I have caused my family. There is no greater agony.
Like anyone who honestly faces the shame of wrongful conduct, I would give anything to go back and undo what I did.
But one of the painful truths I have to live with is the reality that that is simply not possible. An old and dear friend of mine recently sent me the wisdom of a poet who wrote, "The moving finger writes and having writ, moves on. Nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line. Nor all your tears wash out a word of it."
So nothing, not piety, nor tears, nor wit, nor torment can alter what I have done. I must make my peace with that.
I must also be at peace with the fact that the public consequences of my actions are in the hands of the American people and their representatives in the Congress.
Should they determine that my errors of word and deed require their rebuke and censure, I am ready to accept that.
Meanwhile, I will continue to do all I can to reclaim the trust of the American people and to serve them well.
We must all return to the work, the vital work, of strengthening our nation for the new century. Our country has wonderful opportunities and daunting challenges ahead. I intend to seize those opportunities and meet those challenges with all the energy and ability and strength God has given me.
That is simply all I can do -- the work of the American people.
Thank you very much.
Pub Date: 12/12/98