Why The Speech Will Live In Infamy

After seven long months, what we got was four minutes of petulance and prevarication. It felt less like a speech than a slap.

The President’s speech was a disaster, a historic failure that will be ever noted and long remembered. It was, in fact, a reverse Checkers speech. The Checkers speech was a defiant and manipulative statement that saved a career. The Monica speech was a defiant and manipulative statement that will, I believe, ultimately undo one.

The speech had to do four difficult things. First, it had to both be forthcoming and seem forthcoming. Second, it had to elicit from the audience sympathy, empathy, a desire on the part of Americans to make the collective leap from the pursuit of justice to the bestowing of mercy. Third, it had to answer more questions than it raised. And fourth, it had to make the case that it is in our interests as a great nation to move on; it had to end this story by taking the steam out of it.

It failed on all counts. The President was not and did not appear to be forthcoming. His previous untruthful statements were “legally accurate,” though he did not “volunteer information.” He had a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was “not appropriate.” His public comments and his silence gave “a false impression.” He regrets this. He used the lawyerly locutions of one who is using words not to reveal but to conceal. He could not resist the self-indulgent—he was the victim of questions raised “in a politically inspired lawsuit which has since been dismissed.” He meant to show conviction and instead revealed arrogance—”It’s nobody’s business but ours.”

The speech did not elicit sympathy because he was not tough on himself. He was, instead, tough on the independent prosecutor. His demeanor was not that of a strong man in a moment of contrition but that of a defensive man in a moment of aggression. There was no trust in his speech, no sense that he knew he could trust the compassion of the people he leads. When you fail to trust the people, they notice and are not warmed. More to the point, they are left uninclined to give you what you don’t give them. He did not explicitly apologize for having forced the country through seven solid months of mystery, distraction and embarrassment. He suggested this was the fault of an overzealous prosecution.

He raised more questions than he answered. What was the nature of the relationship that was “not appropriate”?

Why was it “wrong”? What did the patronizing “Even Presidents have private lives” mean? Does it mean that Presidents can have sexual relations with 21-year-olds in the room next to the Oval Office and that if we look into it we are “prying into private lives”? Has he learned anything? Will this happen again? Is it quite right for him to instruct the public to “turn away from the spectacle” and “repair the fabric of our national discourse”? Who caused this spectacle? Whose actions led to the most recent deep tearing of the fabric?

I should note here that just before the speech, a guest on Larry King Live said the President should “do a 100% grovel.” The American President cannot, should not, must not grovel. But a strong man can tell hard truths; can be tough on himself; can, through painful candor, inspire a nation to be its best, most generous self. But he must be his best, most generous self first.

Because he was grudging and graceless, because he was not utterly candid and unsparing, because he kept alive old questions and gave life to new ones, because he was his worst self, Bill Clinton did not end this story. He left his friends what they so often are, embarrassed, and his enemies emboldened. He did not rob the engine of its steam. He did the one thing he absolutely could not afford to do: he stoked the fire.

Are we surprised by all this? I was. Clinton has usually been equal to the moment. He has never been eloquent, merely verbal, and he has never—how to put it?—stunned us with his brilliance. But he has often been shrewd, and he has always shown the skills of the survivor. He has always, too, acted the public part of the presidency with ease and burly vanity. The other night on TV I saw a videotape of Clinton walking along the White House lawn, his hands clasped thoughtfully behind his back, his face a shaded mask of contemplation. In physical attitude and facial expression he looked exactly like the lovely White House portrait of President Kennedy. And you know what I am sure he was thinking as he walked by the cameras? He was thinking, “I look exactly like the lovely portrait of President Kennedy.”

So he can act, and does. Why was his acting so bad the other night? I don’t think he was acting. I think he’s tired. I think he dropped the mask. I think it was the real Bill. And I think that for a lot of people the glimpse was unsettling.

But the speech was one thing all speeches want to be. It was historic. It changed things. Alice Roosevelt Longworth once explained the scandal-plagued President Warren Harding to a friend: “Harding was not a bad man, he was just a slob.” For six years, Bill Clinton’s countrymen have thought that for all his messiness and melodrama, he was a basically good fellow, our Bubba, our flawed and favored good ole boy. But after this speech, with its sullen anger and trimming, a chord may have been broken, an estrangement begun. Something tells me “He’s not a slob, he’s a bad man” is on the way, which will be especially wounding for one who so needily gulps the people’s approbation.

Early reports are that Hillary Clinton had a hand in the speech. This would seem to suggest that Dr. Freud was right: a person who has been hurt by another individual will sometimes take unconscious revenge.