Commentary: Censure Means Having To Say You're Sorry But How?

It scarcely matters whether the melodrama, "The Impeachment Trial of William Jefferson Clinton," ends after one brief act or drags on for many. Most Republicans and Democrats agree on the denouement: The President is unlikely to be convicted by the Senate on perjury or obstruction-of-justice charges. "At the end of the day," says Senator Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), "this is going to come down to censure." And that will require some kind of final mea culpa to ring down the curtain.

What can the Sultan of Slick say? He must own up to his deceptions in the Monica Lewinsky affair, without giving foes such as Independent Counsel Kenneth W Starr fresh ammo to prosecute him. Here's what a bipartisan sampling of some of Washington's top wordsmiths would recommend:

-- The "Full Jimmy." Former Bush speechwriter Mark W. Davis believes the President must make a dramatic confession--a move backed by onetime White House guru Dick Morris. "He needs the `Full Jimmy,"' says Davis, "a Swaggart-like apology, with tears." Like the straying televangelist, Clinton must beg for mercy. The suggested script: "I'm sorry. I lied to my family and the American people. I listened to my lawyers and not my heart. I deserve censure. And I promise this will never happen again."

Risky as such a confession is, Davis says it would work because of the President's 70% approval rating. "He can say `I misled and I lied' without getting into the question of whether it was under oath. People shouldn't accept it," Davis grouses, "but they will."

-- The modified limited hang-out. Former Reagan speechwriter Clark Judge thinks appealing to Americans' sense of fair play is smart--but he would shun un-Presidential groveling.

"I'd say: `I had an improper relationship with a young woman on my staff. When asked about it by lawyers, I gave answers I thought were artful--but others felt were misleading. I continue to believe that, but recognize that people differ. I can't erase the shame brought on this office. But forgiveness is the American way. And if I remain in this job, I pledge to earn that forgiveness."'

-- The high road. "No more parsing of what he meant, no more abject confessions," counsels former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet. The high-roaders favor far loftier appeals. "I hope he will say `The framers of the Constitution set up a system under which imperfect people--rather than divinely guided kings--could form a more perfect union,"' says Kusnet. "`We are all imperfect, but public service brings out the best in us."'

Anthony R. Dolan, Ronald Reagan's former chief speechwriter, is another devotee of the elevated approach. "Clinton must use the grandeur of the office," he says. Dolan's script: "`You can't have a President impeached for this. It's about the future. It would hurt our democracy, and we can't risk that kind of instability. Censure is the right course.' And [Clinton] ought to have a section that's gracious to his accusers," Dolan adds, "though Hillary would probably snip it out."

Michael S. Sitrick, a Los Angeles-based crisis-management expert who has counseled such besieged companies as Food Lion Inc. and National Medical Enterprises Inc., says "Clinton must reinforce the idea that the country can't suffer any more. He can say: `I wish I could take back what happened, but I can't. Enormous harm has been done to me and my family. But my Administration has been good for this country. To spare the nation more trauma, I accept censure."' That way, Sitrick figures, "he puts Republicans on the defensive."

Which course will Clinton take? Not even his top aides will venture a guess. But they would do well to look up what "the Great Communicator," Ronald Reagan, said by way of apology during the Iran-contra scandal. After denying that his Administration illegally sold arms to Iran in exchange for U.S. hostages--and then diverted the cash to Nicaraguan contras--Reagan finally took responsibility for the mess in a Mar. 4, 1987, address. "A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages," he said. "My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not." With that, the air rushed out of the Iran-contra balloon.

Capital spinmeisters are convinced that Clinton is studying the Gipper's script. So when Clinton's time comes to face the cameras, don't be surprised if his confession sounds a bit familiar. In Washington, you go with what works.

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