Presidential crisis: Go on offensive to regain respect, Clinton is urged

What Now for the White House?
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PRESIDENT Bill Clinton isunder strong pressure to make some dramatic move to regain the political initiative - such as an appearance in Congress - something that would clear the air and reduce the tension surrounding his position. His Administration appears becalmed and gravely weakened, and, after yesterday's video appearance, a subject of ridicule.

But the continuing caution from the White House shows that the next step may be the most difficult. If he is to have any chance of beating the charges against him, restoring public respect and regaining any control over the political process, he must take the offensive, some allies say. Others caution that he could just make things worse.

He has an advantage. The report of independent counsel Kenneth Starr is out, and so is much of the supporting detail. There is unlikely to be anything new that comes to light about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, even though documentation will continue to trickle out from Congress for weeks.

Though the release of the videotape of his grand jury testimony and documents supporting the Starr report will undoubtedly have been painful, they make little difference to the case as a whole, and the charges remain the same. The ball is in his court.

But the problem for the President is that he must, somehow, break out of the pattern that has been created by his accusers. He has so far not found a successful way to regain the initiative: he is largely at the mercy of events outside his control.

The procedure that will lead to impeachment is under the control of the House of Representatives, and in particular of its Judiciary Committee. They will make the big decisions.

"It's an oddly powerless time," a senior Clinton aide told The New York Times yesterday. "We're passengers on the bus, and someone else is driving the bus."

Another added, gloomily: "I would think there's going to be a really smart move or a really dumb move by either side that's going to more or less define things." And, "I just hope it won't be a dumb move by us."

The White House has so far adopted a muddled, two-prong strategy, with the President apologising for his sins while denying any crimes. The "contrition offensive" has probably passed its sell-by date: there is only so long that the President can stand, moist-eyed, in regret. But there is little else that he can safely do.

One suggestion is that he come clean: go before the Judiciary Committee, explain himself at length and end the protracted revelation of facts.

"This nation is being ill-served by this political water torture that is taking place in a highly calculated, highly partisan way," said Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who is an ally of the President. "I believe the President would be well-served to explain exactly what he did, to the Judiciary Committee and ... let's move on," he said on television on Sunday.

For some time the President has been encouraged to be more upfront about his sins. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, as well as some of the President's allies, said that a clean breast could well lay the groundwork for some punishment less than impeachment. It is a well-travelled path in US politics.

There are several problems with this approach. The President's strategy relies on denying all of the charges against him, including perjury. But whatever the legality, it seems perfectly clear to most people that the President lied about having a sexual relationship with Ms Lewinsky.

An appearance in front of Congress would, once again, lead to the same clash between the President's legal and political strategies: he could only deny perjury, again, and seem to be less truthful as a result. Another suggestion is a television appearance that would attempt to regain public confidence. There is still speculation that an appearance by Hillary Rodham Clinton might help, though the President's wife has been reluctant to repeat the work that she did at the beginning of this year, when the affair first became public.

Opinion polls show that support is slipping: nearly half the American people think that he should consider resigning, according to one report. But he seems highly unlikely to go of his own accord. It is not in his nature to concede defeat.

The President's finances also make resignation a highly unattractive scenario. He has spent millions of dollars in his legal defence, and a disgraced President would have little chance of recouping that money.