Clinton steels himself for Starr

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The Independent Online
A PRAYER breakfast at the White House this Friday may be President Bill Clinton's last chance to voice contrition for his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, who used to work there. But Friday could be too late: by then it is conceivable that the report by the special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, on the President's affair with his former intern, will be in the hands of Congress.

In Dublin last Friday, the President spoke the word "sorry" for the first time. Aides said the comments were prompted by the speech of Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman made in the Senate the previous day. Mr Lieberman galvanised Washington, accusing the President of "disgraceful" and "immoral" acts, deserving of a formal "public rebuke".

Saying sorry may not be enough, however, to win back support that appears to be haemorrhaging even from within his own party. "It doesn't make a drop of difference," commented Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. "We're not dumb enough to fall for this apology now."

Leaders from both sides of the House of Representatives are to meet in Washington on Wednesday to consider how to handle the Starr report when it finally arrives. It was said to be undergoing final touches this weekend, and could reach Capitol Hill before the end of this week. The contents are rumoured to be incendiary.

Leaks of uncertain reliability suggested Mr Starr not only will detail at least six different sex acts engaged in by the President and Ms Lewinsky, but that he will also allege criminal conduct ranging from perjury by Mr Clinton to abuse of power.

Whether the report will be enough to trigger actual impeachment proceedings remains hard to determine. Many politicians will wait first to see whether there is any softening in the President's poll numbers which, to date, have remained almost bafflingly high in spite of the Lewinsky furore.

Other factors could contribute to an erosion of those numbers, however. Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, warned of a likely weakening of the US economy late on Friday. "It is just not credible," he said, "that the United States can remain an oasis of prosperity unaffected by a world that is experiencing greatly increased stress."

Many analysts warned that following Senator Lieberman's attack, other Democrats would see this as sanctioning them to come forward and blowtorch the leader of their party in similar fashion.

There is an alternative view, however. Some suggest that Senator Lieberman, by speaking his mind, may have shielded the President from a still more damaging revolt. One by one, other Democrats have come forward since Thursday to concur with what the Senator said - and what he did not say. Mr Lieberman, an observant Orthodox Jew, actually stopped short of calling for action by the Senate for now.

The crisis to which the President is returning largely overshadowed his enthusiastic reception by an Irish public grateful for his role in clearing the way for the Good Friday Agreement. In an emotional and finale to his Irish visit yesterday, the President returned the compliment, thanking Irish voters who sealed the Agreement's authority with overwhelming backing.

"Remember," he told the Limerick crowd, "there will be still efforts by the enemies of peace to break your will, to get you to turn back, to get you to lose faith. "Don't do it. No matter what happens, remember what it was like when you were here on this day. This is you at your best, do not let them break your will."

Mr Clinton might have been exhorting himself as much as the people in front of him, but whether the buoyant images from Ireland and last week's visible progress in strengthening democratic consensus in Northern Ireland will be enough to avert the loss of further important allies back home is less certain.

Fintan O'Toole, page 24; Joan Smith, page 25