The week's big news, and how's it's being spun.
Dec. 9 1998 3:30 AM



Frame Game Better Late ...

By William Saletan

The conventional wisdom about President Clinton's testimony in the Lewinsky investigation has split into two camps. Camp A says Clinton will admit to the affair and would have fared better had he done so at the outset. Camp B says he won't confess because he can't afford to admit he's been lying for six months. Both camps are wrong. Politically, it made sense to lie in January. And it makes sense to tell the truth now, because the most important thing about the scandal has changed: People have got used to it.

Representing Camp A, Washington Post columnist David Broder writes, "Had [Clinton] dealt with the situation forthrightly back in January, when it surfaced, it would be long gone." But it's equally plausible that if Clinton had confessed, he would be long gone. In the first days of the scandal, the public and the press were shocked at the idea that the president had used a 22-year-old White House intern for oral sex. Published surveys indicated that most Americans thought he should resign or be impeached if he had committed perjury. His approval rating reportedly fell 15 points in a private White House poll. A day after the story broke, former Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos suggested on television that it might lead to "impeachment proceedings or resignation." Three days later, on ABC's This Week, Sam Donaldson declared, "If he's not telling the truth, I think his presidency is numbered in days. ... [He] will resign, perhaps this week."

Broder says if Clinton had admitted to the affair back then, "even Kenneth Starr, I think, might have had the good sense to leave the mess alone." This is hardly likely. It has become increasingly clear since January that Starr is pursuing allegations of witness tampering and obstruction of justice that go well beyond the simple perjury to which Clinton would presumably have confessed.

Representing Camp B, National Journal Editor Michael Kelly writes, "Telling the truth now raises the inescapable point that, by refusing to tell the truth earlier, Clinton forced upon the nation the ordeal of Starr's pursuit of the truth." But polls show that most Americans blame Starr, not Clinton, for the "ordeal." Starr is the prosecutor, Clinton is the target, and the context is Clinton's sex life, which most people consider a private matter. Those three facts make it easy for White House spinners to hold Starr responsible.

Kelly also argues that if Clinton were to admit that he lied in January, "[p]eople would realize they had been played for chumps" and would get mad at him. But polls show that most people already think Clinton lied and he shouldn't be impeached for it. There aren't many chumps left, much less chumps who think they have a right to be told the truth about another family's adultery.

The reason to spill the truth now, rather than in January, was succinctly put by a Clinton administration official in a New York Times story last week: "There is no shock value in anything anymore." In an Aug. 4 New York Post commentary, former adviser Dick Morris counseled Clinton, "The last seven months have removed some of the shock and prepared people for what they suspect is the truth. What you might not have been able to say in January, you can say in August."

In Morris' case, what he couldn't say in August, he said in January. In August 1996, during the Democratic National Convention, a report surfaced that Morris, who was married, had carried on with a prostitute and had let her listen to a phone conversation with Clinton. Morris resigned from the Clinton campaign and deflected inquiries by asserting, "I will not dignify such journalism with a reply." By January 1997, the shock value of the affair had worn off, and Morris confessed explicitly to the affair in a preface to his $2.5 million memoir.

Polls now show that a clear majority of the public is willing to end the Lewinsky investigation if Clinton confesses to the affair and says he falsely denied it to protect his family. You can come out now, Mr. President. It's evening in America.