By William Saletan
In his speech to the nation Monday night, President Clinton apologized, albeit grudgingly, for having lied about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Then he demanded an end to Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation. "This has gone on too long, cost too much, and hurt too many innocent people," he said. "It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives and get on with our national life. ... We have important work to do--real opportunities to seize, real problems to solve, real security matters to face. And so tonight, I ask you to turn away from the spectacle of the past seven months, to repair the fabric of our national discourse, and to return our attention to all the challenges and all the promise of the next American century."
Reports from the Starr camp indicate the independent counsel has no intention of backing off and indeed might even subpoena Clinton for further testimony. While Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, conceded Clinton's confession may spare him impeachment, other Republicans gave no quarter. Many in the media, such as George Stephanopoulos and Sam Donaldson, objected that Clinton was insufficiently contrite, and they demanded further disclosure and apology.
Those who want to push the investigation further--Starr, the GOP, and the media--need to understand that Clinton is no longer playing their game. His speech was not an attempt to regain the upper hand in the battle against Starr. It was a repudiation of the battle. As an alternative, Clinton is asking the public to turn its attention to other matters, such as HMO regulation and the resurgence of terrorism. Judging from recent polls, getting people to care about some of these other issues may be a tough sell. But getting them to call for an end to the Lewinsky investigation will be easy.
Early soundings of the public suggest Clinton's message hit home. In a CBS poll, 59 percent said his statement was satisfactory, and 63 percent said the investigation should be dropped. In an NBC focus group, nearly everyone agreed that despite Clinton's moral failings, the public should back off and let him work it out with his family. "Enough already," said one participant. When asked whether they were bothered by reports that Clinton had refused to answer some questions before the grand jury earlier in the day, virtually all of them answered "No."
Twenty minutes into the networks' post-speech analysis, ABC informed viewers that it was switching back to Monday Night Football. That's essentially the choice Clinton is offering. He has stopped playing the Starr vs. Clinton game that the media have hyped for seven months. He is betting that viewers are sick of it. He is offering a different game and inviting them to change the channel. The game is no longer on the field; it's in the grandstands. If Clinton's pursuers intend to win, they must recognize that the rules have changed and that their challenge is no longer to win the game but to defend it.