The Response

by Doug Payton

Normally, after the President of the United States gives a State of the Union address, the opposing party is allowed to speak in response. On the evening of August 17th, 1998, President William Clinton gave a short speech that was the result of his being cornered by evidence mounting against him. If I were able to get on television right after him and give a response, I would do so by playing portions of what President Clinton said, and follow them by questions that he did not answer and inconsistencies in his words and actions. Here’s how it might go….

Good evening. This afternoon in this room, from this chair, I testified before the Office of Independent Counsel and the grand jury. I answered their questions truthfully, including questions about my private life -- questions no American citizen would ever want to answer.

Mr. President, they were questions that many American citizens never have to answer in the first place. And they were questions that, had you not done what you have done, you would never have had to answer. And they were questions that, had you come clean 7 months ago, you would never have had to answer. This is an obvious plea for sympathy, but you have only yourself to blame for the position you are in.

Still I must take complete responsibility for all my actions, both public and private. And that is why I am speaking to you tonight.

Does this mean you won’t blame anyone else for your predicament? Does this mean that you won’t make excuses? Let’s continue and find out.

As you know, in a deposition in January I was asked questions about my relationship with Monica Lewinsky. While my answers were legally accurate, I did not volunteer information.

Which is why you can say you spoke truthfully both times, yet told different stories, I understand. But do you realize how this will color every single thing you will say from now on? Do you realize how we must now view with suspicion your promises to us in the past and in the future? Do you understand how this invalidates every word spoken by you and your mouthpieces in defense of your actions with respect to Ken Starr’s investigations? Do you even realize how we must now parse every single sentence in this speech? And what of your ardent supports of the past; can they expect to be given an apology?

Indeed, I did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.

Back in January and February of this year, you said you were anxious to inform the American people as to the exact nature of your relationship with Miss Lewinsky. Is this it? Words and phrases such as "relationship" and "not appropriate" could describe a pattern of deep kisses between a married man and an intern. Of course, it could describe quite a bit more as well. These are not very exacting words. I don’t want to know explicit details, but you did say you would tell us once and for all what the nature of that relationship was. Right now, all you’ve said is that it was "a relationship". Are these words and phrases "legally accurate"? Is that good enough for you, and thus it will have to be good enough for us?

But I told the grand jury today, and I say to you now, that at no time did I ask anyone to lie, to hide or destroy evidence, or to take any other unlawful action.

Is this simply a legally accurate statement? Is it the whole truth? Are you therefore saying that Monica Lewinsky lied when she said you discussed ways for her to hide your relationship? When Monica returned your gifts to Betty Currie, was that to expedite the turnover of those gives to Ken Starr or to hide them? Who wrote the very legalese Talking Points Monica gave to Linda Tripp? Your mouthpiece James Carville has been denying you did any of this; did he have your permission to do so, and if not why didn’t you stop him? How about Mike McCurry, your official spokesman; has he been lying as well, or just "legally accurate"?

I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression.

While your comments and your silence have given a false impression, the attacks and the statements by your mouthpieces have given more than just impressions. They have trumpeted your innocence to the world, they have denied what you now admit, and they have attacked and trashed anyone who said anything contrary to your side of the story (well, to what they said was your side of the story). Do you now intend to insulate yourself from what your official representatives have said on your behalf? Do you intend to call off your attack dogs now that what they have been saying can be shown to be false?

You yourself said last January, with respect to full disclosure about your relationship with Monica Lewinsky, that you would respond with "more rather than less, sooner rather than later". This was then followed by your vague public comments and then silence. That, sir, is outright deception, not a false impression.

I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that. I can only tell you I was motivated by many factors: first, by a desire to protect myself from the embarrassment of my own conduct. I was also very concerned about protecting my family. The fact that these questions were being asked in a politically inspired lawsuit which has since been dismissed was a consideration, too.

I can understand the desire to spare yourself and your family embarrassment, though the avoidance of embarrassment has never been an excuse for deception. Further, trying to lay blame for your legally accurate but misleading answers on the people who asked you the questions is finger-pointing of the worst kind. A perjurer in a court of law cannot blame their perjury on the lawyer. While truthful but misleading answers do not legally constitute perjury, you sound like you’re sneering at Paula Jones and saying "See what you made me do?"

In addition, I had real and serious concerns about an independent counsel investigation that began with private business dealings 20 years ago -- dealings, I might add, about which an independent federal agency found no evidence of any wrongdoing by me or my wife over two years ago.

An agency which, I might add, has no force of law at all, and which may have been subjected to your brand of misleading yet legally accurate statements. And let’s not forget the 15 guilty pleas and convictions Ken Starr has come up with outside of the Lewinsky matter. Whitewater isn’t over yet, and even if Hillary and you wind up smelling like roses, you managed to surround yourself with manure. Would you consider this, too, a "critical lapse of judgement"?

The independent counsel investigation moved on to my staff and friends, then into my private life, and now the investigation itself is under investigation. This has gone on too long, cost too much, and hurt too many innocent people.

Well, Mr. President, quite a few of them weren’t so innocent. And if you hadn’t lied (excuse me, "misled") for all this time, you could have spared all your staff and friends this pain. You wouldn’t come clean, so this was the only way the truth could be discovered. You can’t blame Ken Starr for your own inaction and cowardice. You caused their pain, and now it’s time to feel their pain.

The investigation is under investigation only because your representatives have painted Ken Starr as some sort of zealot on a pointless mission. After he amassed enough evidence and cornered you, only then did you admit that what he has been looking into is not unfounded, and in finally admitting it hopefully people will understand that the investigation of the investigation was created to protect your…misleadings.

Why has this investigation gone on as long as it has? Certainly seven months of it could have been shaved off it you had given your short speech back in January or if you’d not tried to invent phantom privileges to prevent those who knew the truth from testifying; you can’t blame that on Ken Starr. Who knows how long Starr’s people were searching for those missing Rose Law Firm billing records that mysteriously appeared in your own residence 2 years after they were subpoenaed. And now that we know your penchant for giving misleading but legally accurate statements, who knows how much time has been wasted trying to find the whole truth. Mr. President, you are as much, if not more, to blame for the length of this investigation as Ken Starr is.

The money issue can be put in perspective by comparing Starr’s cost per conviction to other Independent Councils. His $29.6 million plus Robert Fiske’s $6 million, divided by 15 guilty pleas or convictions comes to about $2.35 million per conviction. James McKay spent $2.8 million convicting White House aide Lyn Nofziger during the Reagan administration. Did any Democrat complain about the cost? Lawrence Walsh spent more time than Starr (80 months vs. 45 so far) and more money than Starr ($47.8 million vs. $35.6 million so far) investigating Col. Oliver North for a total of $4.35 million for each of 11 convictions; about twice Ken Starr’s rate. What was your position on that expenditure? No Democrat ever complained about it. Isn’t this a rather self-serving attitude to take with respect to a rather successful investigation?

And speaking of money, Newt Gingrich, after facing 75 frivolous charges, was found guilty of a minor rules infraction, after which he personally paid for the expense of that 76th investigation. Do you plan to follow the same guidelines set down by the Democrats in Congress and pay back the money wasted trying to force you to tell the truth?

Now this matter is between me, the two people I love most -- my wife and our daughter -- and our God. I must put it right, and I am prepared to do whatever it takes to do so. Nothing is more important to me personally. But it is private. And I intend to reclaim my family life for my family. It's nobody's business but ours. Even Presidents have private lives.

If Monica Lewinsky had turned out to be a spy, would it still be just a private matter? No, sir, you are not just the guy next door, you are the leader of the free world. Power over you via blackmail is great power indeed, and given what you have done to keep this relationship concealed without the threat of outside blackmailing, I shudder to think what you would have done should that threat have been real. No, Ken Starr is not the enemy, he is trying to protect us from the real enemy; a President who’s urges are out of control, and which could put the nation in serious jeopardy under more sinister circumstances. You should be eternally grateful that Monica Lewinsky was just an intern, and that the truth came out in the controlled environment of an Independent Council investigation.

You are our President and the most powerful world leader 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. What you do in private matters very much to the country.

It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives, and get on with our national life. Our country has been distracted by this matter for too long.

I take it then that you will call off the hounds that have been after Ken Starr all this time, and that you will personally retract any and all character assassinations made by your representatives against Paula Jones, Kathleen Wiley, Gennifer Flowers and other women who have come out with similar stories? And do you really believe that the search for and attainment of the truth is nothing more than a distraction?

And I take my responsibility for my part in all of this; that is all I can do.

You’ve said you will take responsibility for this twice now, but you have not said what that phrase means to you, and of course this whole incident has shown us that we need to know precisely what you mean. Does it mean that you will resign from office, as any other CEO of a major corporation would have to do if he were found to have had sexual relations with a 21-year-old intern in the corporate offices? Does it mean that you will pay for the investigation that was required to force you to tell the truth? Does it mean you will pay the penalty for the lies spread by your mouthpieces? What does it mean, sir?

Now it is time -- in fact, it is past time -- to move on. We have important work to do -- real opportunities to seize, real problems to solve, real security matters to face.

Ah, I see. "Take my responsibility" means to forget it all and go on as if nothing happened. Dash off a quick "mea culpa" that is heavy on the "mea" and light on the "culpa", blame the people who’s job it was to find the truth, and everything should be OK. I’m sorry sir, but that is not what America considers "taking responsibility". You are President, not King, and not Emperor. In the eyes of the law of the land, you are not above the law, rather you are subject to it. Being President does not give you a "pass", regardless of how long it took to get you to come clean. "Taking responsibility" means taking the consequences.

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.

No sir, I will not. I will not turn away from the spectacle that you created, especially if in doing so justice is not done. I will not bother to repair the fabric of our national discourse until I am confident that the same man who rent that fabric will not do the same thing again. What you ask is that the American people behave recklessly with regards to what is true and just and lawful. No sir, I will not.

Thank you for watching, and good night.

Good night, Mr. President. I hope you can sleep tonight.

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