President in crisis: Clinton's remorse may gain sympathy

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The Independent Online
WHEN THE tape of the President answering questions under oath from the White House Map Room is broadcast to the American public and the world today, the dominant image of Bill Clinton that emerges will be one of embarrassment, remorse and subdued anger, according to lawyers familiar with the tape.

This version of Mr Clinton's performance contradicts the universally negative accounts of his grand jury testimony circulating at the end of last week, and may reflect White House efforts to draw the sting of today's unprecedented broadcast in advance.

A detailed account of the contents of the four-hour-twelve-minute tape, published in yesterday's New York Times, contended that Mr Clinton could attract more sympathy from today's airing of the tape than was hitherto allowed.

Rather than the argumentative, furiously self-righteous, legalistically evasive figure of earlier accounts, the newspaper quotes the lawyers as saying Mr Clinton appears genuinely sorry for his conduct and for Monica Lewinsky, a White House trainee, saying once, almost in despair: "I'd give anything in the world to not admit what I had to testify to today."

Evincing apparently genuine personal concern for Ms Lewinsky, he reproaches the Starr camp with their treatment of her: "Monica was kept by five of your lawyers and five of your FBI agents," he says. And he describes his efforts to find her a job as an attempt "to help her get on with her life". If he had been trying to silence her, he said, he could have found her a White House job as she wanted, but he did not.

Almost as a token of the genuineness of this account, the New York Times also printed what it said was a verbatim text of Mr Clinton's short opening statement to the grand jury.

In the statement, Mr Clinton admits to being alone with Ms Lewinsky, to conduct "that was wrong", and to "inappropriate intimate encounters" that "did not consist of sexual intercourse" and "did not constitute sexual relations as I understood that term to be defined".

President Clinton said: "I regret that what began as a friendship came to include this conduct. And I take full responsibility for my actions." But he also pleaded to keep further details private, both for the sake of his family and "to preserve the dignity of the office I hold."

The New York Times' report coincided with the appearance of White House aides on television talkshows, all trying to talk down the shock-effect of the videotape. While deploring the House judiciary committee's decision to make the tape public, they lambasted the report of the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, as one-sided and unfair and insisted that little new would emerge from Mr Clinton's testimony.

While the "softer" accounts of Mr Clinton's performance may have some truth, and indicate that the tape's impact on the American public could be more complex than forecast, it remained clear that the broadcast could be highly damaging to the President. That damage, however, might derive less from the sexual revelations than from Mr Clinton's attitude under questioning.

One especially harmful sequence is said to show Mr Clinton quibbling with one of the prosecution team about the definition of "the whole truth" in the oath that he has just sworn. It was also noted yesterday that none of the White House officials who has spoken since publication of the Starr report has questioned any of its findings.

Broadcasting organisations and Internet services spent much of yesterday preparing for a transmission that is unprecedented, both in its content and potential political significance. It is believed to be the first time that television will have transmitted material that is not live, but whose content is not known precisely in advance.

Four United States cable networks are to broadcast the video without editing and without commercial breaks, as soon as it is released - probably at 9am East Coast time today. The major US networks have undertaken to broadcast Mr Clinton's opening statement, and edited passages thereafter, keeping considerations of taste and the public interest in mind.

Some television executives expressed relief that the tape had not been released at a weekend, when children would be home from school, but there was unhappiness in some quarters at the coincidence of the broadcast with Jewish New Year.

More than 2,800 pages of documentation provided to the Starr investigation will also be released simultaneously with the videotape, and staff at congressional and government printing offices were working throughout the weekend to ensure that it would be ready on time.

The material is believed to include much of Ms Lewinsky's testimony, including more graphic accounts of sexual acts, including her orgasms, than appeared in the Starr report. Other items will be e-mails sent by Ms Lewinsky to friends about her relationship; romantic letters she drafted on her computer - but did not send - to the President; transcripts of telephone messages left by Mr Clinton on her answering machine; and the verbatim testimony of other key witnesses, including Mr Clinton's personal secretary and "gatekeeper", Betty Currie.