August 18, 1998
Clinton Admits Lewinsky Liaison to Grand Jury; Tells Nation 'It Was Wrong,' but Private
By JAMES BENNET
WASHINGTON -- Saying that he had misled his wife and the public, President Clinton admitted in a solemn and grim-faced address Monday night that he had had an intimate relationship at the White House with an intern. He also acknowledged the relationship in testimony to a Federal grand jury.
"It was wrong," the President said, speaking defiantly from the same straight-backed chair from which, hours earlier, he had carried on an even more combative exchange with prosecutors. "It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible."
After seven months of emphatic denials of a sexual relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, the former intern, Clinton found himself addressing among the most personally painful of matters -- adultery -- in the most public forum imaginable. Speaking just after 10 P.M., he tried to wrest political forgiveness from personal embarrassment, issuing a proud, even angry demand for his privacy back.
"Now, this matter is between me, the two people I love most -- my wife and our daughter -- and our God," he said. "It's nobody's business but ours. Even Presidents have private lives."
Clinton's defiant statement came after a contentious four-and-a-half-hour session before a grand jury in which he repeatedly refused to answer prosecutors' questions not only about his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky but about other matters under investigation, a Clinton adviser familiar with his testimony said.
In turn, prosecutors told the President that they might subpoena him again, as they did to secure his agreement to testify in the first place, and Clinton's lawyers said that he would probably fight such a move.
Clinton denied that he had obstructed justice and had tried to cover up his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky. "I told the grand jury today and I say to you now that at no time did I ask anyone to lie, to hide or destroy evidence or to take any other unlawful action," he said in his public address. He urged the public to put the matter behind it. "It is past time to move on," he said.
After Clinton's speech it remained unknown what evidence Starr may have on the most damaging questions of obstructing justice, a point that Republicans were quick to emphasize.
In testifying and then speaking to the public, Clinton tried the riskiest high-wire act of his career, moving to balance legal and political burdens. Two days short of his 52d birthday, he sought to protect his Presidency and elude legal jeopardy by acknowledging an intimate relationship in the White House with a subordinate less than half his age.
Clinton had been working on his speech for several days, aides said, trying to strike the right balance between disclosure and dignity, remorse and pride. He ran through it twice tonight before delivering it live, addressing the camera head-on.
Starr is investigating whether the President lied under oath in denying an affair with Ms. Lewinsky last January in his deposition in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct suit. Beyond the nature of Clinton's relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, Starr has been investigating whether Clinton tried to obstruct justice and suborn perjury.
Clinton acknowledged in his testimony having had "inappropriate intimate physical contact" with Ms. Lewinsky, one lawyer and adviser to the President knowledgeable about his appearance said.
But he argued that the contact did not fit the definition of sex used by the Jones lawyers, and therefore he did not commit perjury.
In his brief speech on Monday night, Clinton hinted at the depth of animosity between the two sides, saying that the investigation had "gone on too long, cost too much and hurt too many innocent people."
Clinton testified on Monday, and delivered his speech, from the White House Map Room, from which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt monitored the progress of World War II.
Beginning at 12:59 P.M., President Clinton met with prosecutors in the Map Room, on the ground floor of the White House. His testimony was videotaped and transmitted live by closed-circuit television to a grand jury at the Federal courthouse, just blocks away.
While his lawyers were also in the room, Clinton sat alone before a table, facing off against a cadre of prosecutors who, his associates say, he believes are bent on destroying him.
The details of President Clinton's testimony were not immediately disclosed. But in a brief statement his lawyer, David E. Kendall, said: "As to a very few highly intrusive questions with respect to the specifics of this contact, in order to preserve personal privacy and institutional dignity, he gave candid, but not detailed answers." In announcing his plans to testify earlier this month, Clinton said he would speak "truthfully and completely." But some of his advisers had raised the possibility before his testimony that he might rebuff detailed questions about his sexual contact with Ms. Lewinsky.
Ms. Lewinsky testified Aug. 6 that she had had a sexual relationship with Clinton. She had previously denied such a relationship in a sworn affidavit.
Clinton took several breaks from his testimony on Monday to confer with his lawyers in the doctor's office next door to the Map Room. At about 3:30 P.M., he took a break that lasted roughly an hour, one Clinton ally said.
The furor over the Lewinsky accusations has consumed seven months of Clinton's Presidency, his aides have acknowledged. Clinton viewed his own place in history as riding in part on his performance on Monday and its impact on public opinion, one of his friends said.
Some Republican Congressional leaders have said that an acknowledgment by Clinton that he had not told the truth about his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky might blunt the threat of impeachment proceedings on Capitol Hill. Erskine B. Bowles, the chief of staff, called Democrats on the Hill this evening to rally support for the President.
But even if Clinton heads off such hearings, it is far from clear whether he will put his second term back on track, or put to rest smirking speculation about his private life and new doubts, reflected in public polls, about his truthfulness. More fundamentally, it was uncertain whether the Presidency itself has been diminished by a tawdry spectacle that on Monday drew so much attention that one television camera monitored the scene from the top of the Washington Monument.
With a grave expression and a brief wave, Starr left the White House through the Diplomatic Entrance at 6:40 this evening. Moments later, Kendall stepped through the same door and made brief remarks by the rain-slicked White House drive.
"We're hopeful that the President's testimony will finally bring closure" to the four-year inquiry into the Clintons' Whitewater real estate investment, he said, adding that it had culminated "in an investigation of the President's private life."
White House aides picked up on Kendall's call for closure, declaring that the President's statement Monday night would satisfy any public interest in the long-running Lewinsky drama, and any sense of aggravation with Clinton for his role.
"The American people are not pounding on the door for details, they're pounding on the door for closure," one senior Administration official said. "He doesn't owe them details, he owes them an explanation."
The official compared Clinton's remarks on Monday night to his acknowledgment on national television in January 1992 of "causing pain" in his marriage. Clinton, while campaigning in New Hampshire for the Democratic nomination, had been accused of an affair with Gennifer Flowers, a singer in Little Rock, Ark.
Despite the calls for closure, Starr's investigation shows no signs of concluding immediately. On Tuesday, Dick Morris, the former Clinton adviser forced to resign in 1996 after disclosure of an affair with a prostitute, is scheduled to testify before the grand jury.
On a sweltering, rainy Washington day, White House officials on Monday abandoned almost any pretense of the business-as-usual approach they have taken in the head-snapping swerves and reversals of the Lewinsky investigation.
At the senior staff meeting this morning, Bowles reminded the staff of the importance of sticking together. Michael D. McCurry, the White House press secretary, said that Bowles quoted his own father, saying "it's easy to be there for someone when they're up, but it's the good ones who are there when you're down."
It was a rare admission by the White House that the President's spirits had sagged. One friend said that the President avoided focusing until Sunday on the implications of his testimony. "It hit him hardest on Sunday," the friend said. "This was a very very difficult weekend for him. Nothing is more important to him than his place in history. He is worried that this investigation will eclipse everything else."
The President's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton and his daughter, Chelsea, remained at the White House on Monday, and were believed to have met with him after he testified. Clinton plans to leave for a vacation with his family on Martha's Vineyard at 2 P.M. on Tuesday.
Some of the President's own advisers expressed relief on Monday that he was finally telling his side of the story. Some, however, said they felt misled by him, because he denied an affair to them as well.
Clinton worked out on Monday morning in the White House gymnasium, then spent about two hours preparing with his lawyers in the White House residence. At noon, he broke for a briefing on domestic and national security matters. Advisers described him as engaged and interested in his 10-minute foreign policy discussion, asking Samuel R. Berger, the national security adviser, how the Russian ruble was trading.
The White House released a photo of that meeting, the only public glimpse of the President before Monday night.
Then, at 12:30 P.M., Starr's blue-gray Crown Victoria sedan swept up the White House drive, and he and his team of prosecutors headed for the Map Room.
The room is named for its wall map of Europe still stuck with the colored pins that Roosevelt used to follow World War II. Clinton used the room to hold "coffees" for large donors to the Democrats during the 1996 campaign.
In his deposition on Jan. 17 in the Jones lawsuit, the President acknowledged a mere acquaintance with Ms. Lewinsky, whom he met in 1995 when she was a 21-year-old unpaid intern. Clinton said that he could not even recall ever being alone with her.
"I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky," Clinton said. "I've never had an affair with her."
Ms. Lewinsky had sworn in an affidavit that she did not have a sexual relationship with him.
Unknown to Clinton, an associate of Ms. Lewinsky, Linda R. Tripp, had secretly tape-recorded numerous conversations in which her friend described an affair with Clinton.
Mrs. Tripp provided those tapes to prosecutors, and also met with Ms. Jones' lawyers before they interviewed the President.
(Copyright © 1998 The New York Times Company)