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



Frame Game Modified Mea Culpa

By William Saletan

Last week, most pundits thought President Clinton should pursue a "mea culpa" strategy in his Aug.17 testimony to the grand jury. This entailed five steps: 1) Admit he had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. 2) Admit he lied when he denied this in his deposition in the Paula Jones case. 3) Explain the lie was not premeditated and that he told it to protect his family. 4) Call on Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr to end the investigation for the good of the country. 5) Count on public pressure to deter Congress from pursuing impeachment.

This week, a new twist on this idea is taking shape: "modified mea culpa." This is an adaptation of the "modified limited hangout" of Watergate fame. The crude version of MMC, advocated by George Stephanopoulos on ABC's This Week (see " Pundit Central" for more), is to concede vaguely to the grand jury that there was a sexual relationship but otherwise to "stonewall." The sophisticated version, expounded by celebrated defense lawyer Roy Black on NBC's Meet the Press, is not to concede even that much. "He has to take a compromise position," Black suggested, adding that he would tell the president, "You go into the grand jury, you get on this monitor, and you say, 'Look, I understand that you're investigating obstruction of justice and perjury and all of that. I will testify fully about it. You can ask me any question you want about that. But about my private sex life, that zone of privacy, I'm not going to testify about. ... It is not the matter for this grand jury to investigate. It's not a federal crime.' "

Everyone understands the negative rationale for MMC: All the other options are worse. If Clinton sticks to his story, many people who didn't think he should be impeached for committing perjury in a now-dismissed civil suit will conclude reluctantly that he should be impeached for committing perjury before a federal criminal grand jury. If he tells the grand jury he lied in the Jones case, he will humiliate himself and his family, might still be prosecuted for perjury, and might even enable the reinstatement of Jones' suit. If he reneges on his promise to testify, he will provoke a constitutional crisis, be widely suspected of a cover-up, and might face impeachment proceedings.

What pundits fail to appreciate is the affirmative rationale. Black says MMC offers Clinton "a principled way" of dodging questions to which he has unwisely subjected himself by agreeing to testify. "He can say: 'Look, you've said all along this is not about sex, it's about the cover-up. I'm willing to testify all you want about that.' " But this argument isn't just a good defense; it's a good offense. The charges on which Clinton might plausibly face impeachment--obstruction of justice and subornation of perjury--are those on which the evidence is weakest. On the other hand, the offense of which he seems plainly guilty--lying about his sex life--is the one average citizens, including grand jurors, deem least worthy of further scrutiny. Therefore, Clinton's chief objective should be to drive a wedge between the two issues. The best way to accomplish this is to assert the distinction in a direct confrontation with Starr.

Clinton's critics grouse that he'd never get away with this. On Sunday's TV shows, George Will and former federal prosecutor Joseph DiGenova argued that if Clinton refuses to answer some questions before the grand jury, Judge Norma Holloway Johnson will hold him in contempt of court. A constitutional crisis would then ensue over whether a contempt citation can be enforced against a sitting president. But if Clinton refuses to testify altogether and disregards the consequent subpoena from Starr, he will face this crisis anyway. The difference is that by offering MMC, Clinton can reduce the dispute to his sex life and thereby portray Starr as a needlessly prurient and intrusive zealot.

Clinton's defenders also doubt he will pursue MMC, but for a different reason. They think it's inconsistent with his history of never candidly discussing charges against him, such as those involving Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, and Kathleen Willey. But the precedent for MMC lies in Clinton's politics, not in his personal life. When threatened by conservative initiatives, most notably welfare reform and tax cuts, Clinton has always cut them in half, surrendering the differences on which his enemies hold the advantage in order to reduce the fight to differences where he holds the advantage. MMC isn't just Clinton's salvation. It's his soul.