EDITOR’S NOTE: This ran as a “From the Editor” feature in the April 6, 1998, issue of National Review.
WASHINGTON, D.C., March 25–In an extraordinary speech tonight, President Clinton appeared jointly with a Washington, D.C.-based therapist to confess that most of the Sexgate allegations lodged against him are true, but that intensive counseling and a 12-step recovery program will allow him to continue “doing the people’s business.”
”I sincerely apologize,” the President said in an emotional 12-minute speech against the dignified backdrop of the Oval Office, “that a difficult and emotionally barren childhood coupled with the political attacks I have had to endure pushed me into behavior over which I had no control and for which I bear no responsibility.”
In a talk that is already drawing comparisons to then-Vice President Richard Nixon’s Checkers speech and President Kennedy’s Oval Office mea culpa after the Bay of Pigs, President Clinton often choked back tears and at one point held up a chart displaying the 12 steps of “Sex Addicts Anonymous” as he declared: “For me, and for the nation, it is time for the healing to begin.”
Explaining that his condition is technically known as “satyriasis,” and that it “afflicts thousands of hard-working Americans every year,” Clinton pledged to request increased National Institutes of Health funding for sex afflictions and to lead a “national dialogue” on out-of-control sexual behavior.
Initial reaction from both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill was favorable. “I think we all can learn something from the President’s courageous address tonight,” said Sen. Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.). Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott remarked, “The President really does get it.” Meanwhile, Speaker Newt Gingrich predicted quick approval for Clinton’s proposed NIH spending increases.
White House aides tell of frenzied days in the run-up to the speech, as former Clinton advisor Dick Morris was called back to the White House to advise on recovery programs and pollster Mark Penn tested whether the phrase “incorrigible sexual predator” or “victim of obsessive passions” made a better impression on the public.
In a grueling session over pizza and soda in a West Wing office late last night, President Clinton repeatedly reworked and rehearsed the speech, practicing the dabbing of tears even after exhausted aides assured him he had mastered the maneuver. According to insiders, the First Lady coached the President and inserted one of the speech’s most memorable lines: “yes, at times, I loved too much.”
Analysts from across the political spectrum agreed that the speech represents a serious setback for Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, who now risks seeming insensitive to a President who has movingly bared his soul to the American public.
Clinton’s defenders were quick to go on the attack. “It’s time for the witch-hunt to stop,” said James Carville in a heated exchange with wife Mary Matalin on ABC’s Nightline. “So the President’s got a problem? What’s Ken Starr gonna do, put him in jail for it?”
Clinton lawyer Bob Bennett called the speech a “vindication,” and maintained that the President’s confession “Demonstrates once and for all that he has been the victim of a campaign of lies, engineered to drum him from office–when we all known now these were only the innocent gropings of a well-meaning but troubled man.”
On one front, reaction to the President’s speech was muted. Even after the President talked of numerous liaisons in the Oval Office with his client–”some on this very rug”–Monica Lewinsky’s attorney William Ginsburg refused to acknowledge that she had had sex with the President.
“Larry, my client is sticking by the second of her three credible and entirely truthful versions of events,” he said in an hour-long interview on CNN’s Larry King Live. “All I’m going to say is that the President is a man of honor.”