Clinton's Confession: All the President's words: a model of sincerity or just doublespeak?

`Liar, liar' - the press delivers its judgment
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THE difference in reaction to President Bill Clinton's appearance on television on Monday is best summed up by two headlines in the New York press. "Strong at politics, weakened by lapses," reads a sub-headline below a picture of a chastened but defensive president in The New York Times. The New York Daily News is a little blunter: "Liar, Liar" it screams in huge headline type across the front page.

The knife-edge the President had to tread was between admitting what everybody suspected and revealing himself as a liar. Polls showed a considerable majority already believed that, despite earlier statements, he had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky; they also believed he had lied about it. But they were not prepared to be lied to again. So his task was to confess, persuade people the ground had been cleared, and it was time to move on.

Immediate evidence from opinion polls is somewhat contradictory. A CBS/New York Times poll found 60 per cent were satisfied with his admission, and the same percentage wanted the inquiry ended. An ABC poll showed the President's ratings had increased by 10 per cent. But a poll for USA Today/CNN/Gallup found Mr Clinton's favourable rating had slumped from 60 to 40 per cent, and 46 per cent did not believe he had told the truth - or at least the whole truth, a point on which he will continue to be vulnerable.

Only later in the week will reaction become clear. The public will have thought the matter over and the media will have digested the speech and spat it out again. Reaction in the morning press was limited, as the speech was at 10am, and many papers had scrambled to make deadlines. Editing mistakes crept on to the front page of The New York Times. But the balance of reporting and comment was that this had not been a good day for the President. It was a damning judgement the paper drew in its editorial: "Bill Clinton speaks, a Little," the headline read. "[By] our lights, Mr Clinton let slip a vital chance to give a healing report to the nation and to begin the task of rehabilitating his character in the eyes of the public," it said. "Instead he went for the time-tested blend of minimal confession and contained tantrum that got him elected twice, but will not make him a leader who will be missed when he leaves Washington."

The Washington Post did not manage an editorial, preferring to enlighten us on the rouble. But the its news coverage was kinder than The New York Times'. The Wall Street Journal, which has been gunning for the President since he was elected, was astringent. "By now the important question is whether we as a nation will keep lying to ourselves about Bill Clinton."

The President has not been a media favourite for some time and newspapers have been out of step with public opinion to some extent. The public has been much more forgiving - at least to the extent that the economy has been robust, and America seems to be ticking along very nicely.

So there is some reason to think the nation's judgement will be kinder as a whole than commentators. But there is cynicism about the President that was more palpable than ever last night in the bars where many Americans gathered to watch the Commander-in-Chief confess to a sexual relationship with a 21-year-old. Polls showed that some two-thirds of the population had watched the speech live.

If one key aim of the speech was to shut the door on further enquiries, the President was doomed to failure.

The Starr enquiry will continue, newspapers and television discussion programmes noted, and they will continue to report it. Many of the television programmes focused on precisely the next steps that Mr Starr would take, the next witnesses before the grand jury (including Dick Morris, the President's besmirched former adviser).

In general, the tone of the chat shows was as drearily predictable as it has been for months: the President's political allies defend him, his opponents lay into him. But it is noticeable that it is getting harder to find defenders, outside the few who have stuck by him all the way through.

Few Democrats were available for comment, and those that were had few kind words.

`Whatever we eventually learn he has told the grand jury, Mr Clinton has rubbed our noses into this muck for seven months now, long enough to force us to confront the facts and the standard of behaviour we expect from Presidents.'

`Too much of a too short speech was devoted to another blast of the familiar dichotomous blarney. His touching admission of lying to his wife was coupled with the insulting contention that his earlier denial, under oath, of a sexual relationship was "legally accurate".'

`Even if the President's reputation is sullied beyond repair, if his honor and honesty are completely and irrevocably undermined, the damage falls primarily on this President. The presidency - the dignity, the authority, the bully pulpit - survives because it must.'

`This was no mea culpa speech. It was a Clinton the country has seen before when he faced a political crisis, a Clinton as defiant as he was contrite ... In that sense, the tone of his speech represented one of the biggest gambles of his Presidency.'