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Carlson Margaret Carlson was named in 1994 the first woman columnist in TIME's history. She writes primarily about policy and politics and is a regular panelist on CNN's Capital Gang.

No, There's A Trap Waiting

By Margaret Carlson

TIME magazine

I don't know anybody at the top of the system...who really wants to see the President hurt," said Senator Orrin Hatch, who could inflict some of that hurt. "[If] he does come forth and say, 'I made a mistake ...' [to] protect his wife and daughter...and then ask for...some sort of consideration, I think we would bend over backward to try and give him that consideration."

That's so sweet, but so unlikely. I've heard those words many times. Come to think of it, I've said those words many times, even though I've hardly ever seen it work out. The best example in my life came when my parents heard about a bunch of 15-year-olds who had talked their older friends with licenses into letting them drive around the local shopping-center parking lot after hours, creating havoc. "Just tell me if you've ever been down there," my mother urged. "It will be worse if I find out from the security guards or other parents." So I fessed up to that heady, behind-the-wheel spin from rows A to N. It's possible things would have been worse if an independent counsel had forced the truth out of me. But for copping to that escapade willingly, I wasn't allowed to get my learner's permit until I was 17.

Although everyone talks about the perjury trap that Ken Starr's grand jury holds for the President, the confession trap is just as big a hazard. Still, Hatch's offer has been gaining steam in both parties all week, so much so that the White House put some questions into its weekly poll to test it. Fruitlessly, I suspect, since those polled will inevitably overestimate their capacity for forgiveness.

This doesn't mean coming clean isn't the right thing to do--just that it isn't the panacea some make it out to be. Imagine if Clinton were to confess, reversing his finger-wagging denial and replacing it with a tortured definition of sex to help explain his earlier claims of innocence. Even if he said he did it to spare his family, the support he enjoys among a majority of Americans would sink like a stone. It's one thing to have an abstract notion that he actually had an affair and covered it up (and to have that leak from Starr's grand jury). It's another to hear it from his own mouth, to have the fig leaf of doubt removed and be forced to confront our own moral laxity in being willing to overlook it.

The press has long favored confession. The implicit bargain struck with the Comeback Kid was that in exchange for his one get-out-of-jail-free card on the Gennifer Flowers business, he would never, ever fool around in the White House. If he has broken that bargain--and who in the press thinks he hasn't?--forget some mealymouthed I-caused pain-in-my-marriage explanation. Now that he has caused pain in the country, nothing will suffice short of a full Jimmy Swaggart. The noninhaling, I-didn't-get-an-induction-notice escape artist must give a detailed accounting on prime-time TV. After that, who would be "bending over backward" with consideration for the President?

The press often talks like a spouse owed an explanation by a cheating husband, but in real life many marriages rely on a "don't ask, don't tell" policy: Please don't have an affair, but if you do, please shield me from it. Some marriage counselors advise keeping a hurtful fling to yourself if you want to make it to your silver anniversary, which, by the way, Hillary seems set on doing, no matter how much we want her to throw the bum out.

For drama, it would be hard to top a mea culpa. Just for Monica's appearance last week, white canopies sprang up outside the courthouse to shade hundreds of reporters and their coolers of soda and takeout food, their lawn chairs and boom boxes. Add a few prize bulls, and it could have been a county fair; add a bride and groom, and you could have thrown a wedding. Journalists may not relish seeing a President brought down, but what will we do for excitement once the biggest scandal of our time ends?

The only confession that works without fail is the religious kind, the bless-me-father-for-I-have-sinned sort. So far, Ken Starr hasn't challenged the priest-penitent privilege, and for five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys, you get absolution. Confession and forgiveness really are divine, not human, and certainly not political. That's why it's called a sacrament.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: August 17, 1998

Investigating The President
If He Must, Do It With Flair
Over To You, Bill
No, There's A Trap Waiting
Billy Martin: Monica's Minister Of Defense
Pundits' Jamboree

John Glenn
Back To The Future
The Soul Of A Senator
A Realm Where Age Doesn't Count
Milestones In Space

The Motown Motormouth
If The Going Gets Rough, Gephardt's Got A Scrapper

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