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



Frame Game White Flag

By William Saletan

It's over. The White House has surrendered.

President Clinton's stonewall collapsed with this morning's New York Times headline: "President Weighs Admitting He Had Sexual Contacts." According to the article, "President Clinton has had extensive discussions with his inner circle about a strategy of acknowledging to a grand jury on Monday that he had intimate sexual encounters with Monica S. Lewinsky in the White House, senior advisers have said."

The Washington Post pooh-poohs the Times story, pointing out that "a partial-admission scenario has been floated by Clinton advisers in various news outlets for days." But this is the first time anyone has reported that Clinton himself has discussed a confession. The difference is huge.

"It could be that some of the President's advisers are discussing his possible approaches with reporters to gauge the political reaction," says the Times. Either the advisers are naive in attempting this "gauging" tactic, or the Times is naive in surmising it. You can't float a confession as though it were a public policy option. Either you've got something to confess or you don't. You can plausibly entertain a public policy option and decide against it. But there's no sense in entertaining a confession unless you're being coerced to do so or you've got something to confess. And nobody's coercing the president.

According to the Associated Press, "An adviser familiar with some aspects of the preparations" confirms that the confession option is "being discussed both inside the [preparation] room and outside." This implies that people inside the room--the inner circle of lawyers who really know what Clinton is talking and thinking about and who have scrupulously kept their mouths shut--have told the political advisers that the confession option is being discussed. Which implies, in turn, that Clinton has authorized at least one of the lawyers to leak it.

In sports, this is known as "garbage time." Trailing late in the game, a coach sends his bench players onto the field to replace his starters. It's not an explicit forfeit, but everyone knows what it means: The game is over.

"Clinton has not settled on this [confession] approach," says the Times. "The advisers cautioned ... that the strategy could still change as the President continued to examine the legal and political implications of various courses." No, it can't. The irony of the past two weeks is that from the moment Clinton agreed to testify, the only way to keep his options open was to keep the confession option publicly closed. Now that it's publicly open, all other options are closed.

Clinton's advisers are floating various legal theories in the press about what kind of sex he will confess to and how he will square it with his deposition in the Paula Jones case. But the fundamental question is settled. Clinton will confess. Now, as Oscar Wilde would say, we're just quibbling over the details.