Forgive and Forget?

Aug. 3 1998 3:30 AM

Forgive and Forget?

Clinton measures his last option.

The dress, the dress. Hold your horses for the dress. I'll get to it later.

First, the new Flytrap motto, brought to you by kindly inquisitor Sen. Orrin Hatch: "We are a forgiving people."

David Plotz David Plotz

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

As Flytrap II enters Week II, it is segueing gracefully into the second stage of scandal: The initial glee of Clinton's enemies has matured into thoughtful magnanimity. The sound of young conservatives baying for DNA has subsided. If last week's theme was high dudgeon, this week's will be high-mindedness. The Republicans' new strategy seems to be: (Possibly) Forgive and (Maybe) Forget.

The strategy, which Hatch, Sen. Arlen Specter, Bob Novak, and others hinted at over the weekend, seems to go like this:

The president is trapped, and everyone else is embarrassed. The only remedy is a presidential mea culpa (or rather, since the ones pushing the culpa are not the person who would actually apologize, a tua culpa). If Clinton admits his affair to the grand jury and the American public, explains that he lied to protect his daughter and wife, and apologizes with sufficient breadth and--this is important--abjectness, then, well, we'll probably forgive him and call off the dogs. On Meet the Press, Hatch said that he and House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde (who would supervise impeachment proceedings) are inclined to be forgiving (unless, of course, there is evidence of other high crimes). Other Republicans, he implied, could also be big-hearted.

Any time I find myself agreeing with Hatch and Novak I grab my wallet, and the cynic in me says this magnanimity may have been arrived at only after much jujitsu with public opinion polls. The Forgive and Forget strategy has this virtue for Republicans: It is the only way they're going to win a clean PR victory. The polls are impossible for them. Surveys have been jiggered and rejiggered to find some way, any way, 50 percent of Americans would back impeachment. No luck. The best effort so far was a Wall Street Journal poll that found that 45 percent of Americans--up from 39 percent last month!--would favor holding impeachment hearings if Clinton had an affair and perjured himself. This is a number made absurd by the fact that 1) A 6 percent rise is hardly a tidal wave; 2) in no universe is 45 percent a majority; 3) impeachment hearings are not impeachment; and 4) similar polls registered impeachment support at 24 percent or 14 percent. This does not a winning issue make.

The only poll that I've heard about that makes any sense, which may be the one the GOP is reading, is the ABC News survey (I think) saying that 69 percent of Americans would clear Clinton if he makes a clean breast of it.

Whether they've reached their conclusion for cynical or idealistic reasons, Hatch and Co. do seem to have hit on the only solution to this mess, the only outcome that will punish Clinton adequately, satisfy his persecutors enough to quiet them, and save us from two more years of this horror. (All this assumes the allegations are true. Insert usual caveats here: "till Aug. 17," "DNA testing by the FBI," "unreliable witness," etc.)

Why would Clinton agree to apologize?

1) It would shock no one and disappoint few to find out that Clinton and Lewinsky did have an affair despite his earlier claims.

2) Clinton has the rhetorical grace to pull off such an apology in a way that doesn't seem phony (he'll blame it on his own big heart, his fierce desire not to hurt wife and child).

And most important: 3) An apology cuts off Starr's investigations at the knees. Without an apology, Clinton is doomed to enervating, fratricidal, interminable impeachment hearings. An apology would prevent them. The Flytrap investigation is the only part of Starr's work that America a) understands and b) actually cares about. Would an admission of lying about Monica weaken Clinton's claims in the other Starr matters? I doubt it. After a mea culpa, the public or Congress are unlikely to muster much enthusiasm for chasing Clinton through the dull, impenetrable thickets of Whitewater, Travelgate, and Filegate. Even if Republicans decide later that they don't actually forgive and forget, it may be too late. An apology could wipe away all the scandals but campaign finance.

There is no sign yet that the administration is tempted by mea culpa/Forgive and Forget. All leaks out of the White House suggest that the president is sticking to his denial. Lanny Davis, the closest thing to an official source who is talking, deflected the idea of an apology when quizzed about it. But if the administration isn't buying, its allies are. Democrats are matching Republicans big heart for big heart. Barney Frank, the president's best friend in the House, has suggested that Clinton should 'fess up if he had an affair, as has Leon Panetta. On This Week, George Stephanopoulos all but implored his former boss to cut his losses and apologize.

Will the White House come around? If I were a betting man, I would wager that during this week, other prominent Democrats--as they did when Clinton hesitated over Starr's subpoena--will make increasingly obvious pleas for Clinton to apologize. And, unless the dress is a red (navy blue) herring, I would wager that Clinton will listen. Surely he's willing to tarnish the legacy he cares so much about in order to save his presidency.

Tomorrow: more on the dress.

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