Flytrap Tonight: That Was an Apology?

Aug. 19 1998 3:30 AM

Flytrap Tonight: That Was an Apology?

How can we forgive him if he isn't sorry?

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I just watched the president's speech at Jonah Goldberg's D.C. apartment. It is here that Lucianne Goldberg first met Linda Tripp and here that Newsweek's Mike Isikoff refused to listen to the Lewinsky tapes. Jonah's apartment, in short, is the safe house of the vast right-wing conspiracy. I figure there's no better place to watch the climax of Flytrap than the place where it began.

Jonah, who is a friend but not an ideological soul mate, has stocked the apartment with conservative pals, and they are in high glee. This is a night of vindication for them, not a night of magnanimity. Jonah answers the phone "Gloating Central," and during the Larry King pregame show, every appearance of James Carville is greeted with hoots of laughter. This is not the audience of average Americans who are supposed to watch Clinton apologize, forgive him, and--to use the night's phrase--"move on with their lives." It does not surprise me that Clinton's speech wasn't enough for them: Nothing he could say would have been enough for them. But it does surprise me that Clinton's speech wasn't enough for me. I arrived at Jonah's in a forgiving mood: Let's get this over with. I left a bit puzzled.

As theater, the Map Room talk was a minor masterpiece. Clinton looked fresh despite his horrible afternoon. He wore a fine blue power suit. He wisely kept Hillary out of the picture: Any awkwardness between them would have been disastrous. The Map Room was the right choice: The Oval Office would have been presumptuous and seamy (Where's that private study, Bill?).

But as an apology, this was a feeble effort. Nobody expected Clinton to make a baldfaced confession: "The American people need to know if their president is a lech. I am a lech." But I think almost everyone expected him to at least admit it. I certainly did. It may have been a mea culpa, but there wasn't much culpa to show for it. He sounded angry, not sorry. He conceded an "inappropriate" relationship. He allowed that he has "misled" the American people. He "took complete responsibility." But all those are champion weasel expressions. What does it mean to "take complete responsibility"? Do you actually have to do anything painful when you take it? What is an "inappropriate" relationship? Is it sexual? What's the difference between misleading and lying? (My favorite moment of the evening came when ABC pundits tried to parse Clinton's comments about the Paula Jones deposition. They gave up, baffled. His words defy comprehension. He believes language is a weapon of confusion.)

Instead of turning belly up, Clinton followed the golden rule of spin: When you're explaining, you're losing. The president, who has always felt more comfortable attacking than defending, artfully turned his apology into a broadside against Ken Starr. (He did this despite endless pregame predictions that he would leave Starr alone. By the way, was anyone who has ever expressed an opinion about Flytrap not on television tonight? At one point I counted 20 separate pundits, most of them on Larry King Live.)

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

Out of the four minutes for which he spoke, Clinton spent about one minute explaining himself and the rest complaining about Starr, the intrusion upon his private life, and the distraction of the nation from serious matters. The speech was less about Clinton's sins than Starr's--a stella culpa, as it were.

This raises the curious paradox about the Map Room speech. As argument, it was unassailable. Clinton is absolutely correct that Starr's investigations have "gone on too long, cost too much, and hurt too many innocent people." He is absolutely correct that his personal life has been invaded in ways that no one's should. He is absolutely correct that Flytrap has horribly distracted politicians, journalists, and the public from critical issues of the day. (These points are not only true, they are also poll-tested.) But tonight was not the night to make such arguments. He should have left the Starr bashing to his deputies. (Carville was doing a superb job of it.)

Tonight was the night for abject apology, for contrition, for explanation. Tonight was the night to eat crow. It's a bit much for Clinton, three hours after he finished testifying, to start impugning Starr's credibility. Clinton, after all, is one who lied to us. Clinton is the one who screwed (or whatever) the 22-year-old intern and tried to cover it up. Clinton is the one who has delayed and stonewalled us for seven months.

For the past few weeks at regular intervals, Republican politicians have been telling us that we are a forgiving people. I'm sure they're right. But can you forgive someone who hasn't really asked for forgiveness?

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