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Silence Is Riskier Than Openness

Dear Mike McCurry,

It was back in mid-January when you came to breakfast and promised that your "boss" would meet with reporters very soon and clear up the Monica Lewinsky incident. I suggested that the president meet with our Monitor group as he has done in the past and you said that this was one possible course of action.

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Anyway, for a few days I really thought Mr. Clinton was going to sit down with us, or with some other reporters, and explain in detail what happened - or didn't happen - in the Lewinsky matter. Then, quite obviously, Clinton's lawyers stepped in and overruled your recommendation.

The president says that on their advice he is saying nothing beyond a denial. No, of course I don't know what happened between the president and Ms. Lewinsky. But there's solid evidence that shows Lewinsky visiting the Oval Office nearly 40 times during a relatively short period of time.

Perhaps she merely had a lot of messages to deliver to Clinton. Maybe the relationship was just a friendly one. Perhaps she was fantasizing when depicting a sexual relationship with Clinton in her taped phone conversations.

But if the president has an explanation for this incident, why shouldn't he spell it out to the press and, thereby, to the public? Sure, the explanation may be "complicated," as, I think, you have suggested. But we're eager to listen and to hear him out even though it is a tangled tale.

But where do Clinton's lawyers have him now? Well, much of the press and much of the public think that the president is stonewalling when he won't talk on the subject. They think he's covering up something. So his present approach is gaining him little, probably hurting him a lot.

You know, Mike, I covered the Watergate scandal closely and in my judgment Richard Nixon could have saved his presidency if he had gone to the American people and "told all."

Nixon's disclosure to be truly effective should have come when he first heard about the break-in. But his continual stonewalling and cover up soon put him past the point where disclosure would have saved him from the impeachment process.

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What some observers are calling "Lewinskygate" is far less a scandal than Watergate - which even Sen. Barry Goldwater came around to comparing with Teapot Dome. But letting Lewinskygate drag out does contain the real risk that it will increasingly grow in size and in the corrosive effect it will have on this presidency.

Already, the scandal is preoccupying the mind of this president, even though he insists that it isn't. It has to keep him from putting 100 percent of his thought on his job. Just talking to his lawyers has to take up some of his time.

So I hope you are continuing to push for your boss to give us an explanation of the Lewinsky matter. If he's been unjustly accused, let us applaud his conduct. If he's acted in ways that deserve criticism - particularly if he has in any way lied or caused others to lie - let that go on the record, too.

I'm convinced that such a disclosure of inappropriate or even illegal behavior, uttered by a president who perhaps admits he has a sex-related problem and is trying to deal with it, would evoke forgiveness from much of the public which, according to polls, is already showing a willingness to forgive Clinton in such a scenario.

Openness is a way for Clinton to put this all behind him and turn to other things that require his attention.

Openness has risks; but silence has much greater risks, in my opinion.

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