Confession leaves Clinton on the rack

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The Independent Online
BILL CLINTON'S future as President of the United States was on the line yesterday as America's public and politicians weighed their response to his televised admission that he misled them. While the Christian Right called unequivocally for his resignation, and commentators lamented a "crippled" presidency, opinion polls showed that the public could yet again rescue Mr Clinton from himself.

A majority of those asked said they approved and accepted the President's acknowledgement of a relationship with Monica Lewinsky that was "not appropriate" and "in fact, wrong". Opinion was remarkably uniform across the country, with about 60 per cent of New Yorkers, Californians and Southerners expressing the belief that the country should "get this behind us" and Mr Clinton should carry on.

The phrasing of the questions, however, appeared to work to Mr Clinton's advantage, and a differently formulated question, in a Gallup poll for USA Today and CNN, showed a 20 per cent drop in those who approved of Mr Clinton personally (from 60 to 40 per cent). Some 72 per cent, though, still said that the country would be better off if he remained in office.

Within half an hour of Mr Clinton completing his broadcast on Monday night, his Vice-President, Al Gore, who had gone to Hawaii on holiday a week before, issued a statement of support. Mr Gore said that he was proud of Mr Clinton "not only because he is a friend, but because he is a person who has had the courage to acknowledge mistakes". He said he was honoured to work with "this great President" and that it was time to "put this matter behind us once and for all - and move forward with the business of the United States of America".

Other leading Democrats, however, were more cautious. Dick Gephardt, a possible rival to Mr Gore for the presidential nomination in two years' time, said he was disappointed in Mr Clinton's personal conduct, but hoped Mr Starr's investigation could now be brought to an end.

There was silence, however, from many leading Republicans. The speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, and the leader of the Senate, Trent Lott, said nothing. The role of mediator was played once again, as it has been for the past three weeks, by Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate judiciary committee that would be called upon to judge Mr Clinton if impeachment proceedings were instituted.

Mr Hatch, who initiated the plea for Mr Clinton to confess and held out the prospect of forgiveness, tried to tread a thin line between approval for the President's televised admission and scarcely disguised anger with the truculence of Mr Clinton's implicit attack on the independent prosecutor.

In a television studio he was heard to remark off-camera: "Wasn't that pathetic? I tell you, what a jerk." On camera, he said that Mr Clinton's attack on the investigation had made him "almost blow my stack". But he rapidly reverted to his approval for the admission, making clear that he felt the risk of impeachment proceedings against the President had probably been averted.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats have exhibited any appetite for impeaching Mr Clinton on what many agree is an issue relating more to his private than his public life. With mid-term congressional elections in November, both parties appear to believe that impeaching a hitherto popular president could lose votes. There is also fear of a so-called Armageddon scenario, under which it is thought that the White House could release details of the imperfect sex lives of leading Republicans - starting with Mr Gingrich.

The chief witness before the grand jury in the Monica Lewinsky investigation yesterday was Dick Morris, Mr Clinton's former adviser who resigned after being caught consorting with prostitutes. Mr Morris revealed after the President's televised admission that Mr Clinton had phoned him to tell him the truth about the relationship the day after the first press reports appeared in January.

The Clintons, meanwhile, were preparing to travel to Massachusetts for a holiday.