Caught in a web of news and rumors about sex games so sordid that journalists declined to report many details, the big man decided he had to speak.
"I do not plan to whitewash my sin," he said. "I take the blame. I take the fall."
The key word was "sin," when the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart set the standard for media confessions a decade ago. For 30 tear-drenched minutes he confessed sins against God, his wife, his children and his church. He even commended journalists for reporting his sins. Finally, he faced the camera and said: "I sinned against you. I beg you to forgive me."
Swaggart knew his followers needed him to repent, before they could forgive him. President Clinton is stuck with a more mysterious and divided flock. For a generation, America has been torn by culture wars over the moral status of sex outside of marriage -- affecting issues from abortion to the legal status of same-sex and live-in relationships.
The bottom line: It's hard to repent of sexual sins in your personal life when, in your political life, you're in charge of defending the sexual revolution. On sexual issues, it would be hard for Clinton to embrace the word "sin" without being accused of political blasphemy by the lifestyle left. Meanwhile, the government's sexual harassment laws are more morally conservative than the doctrines being proclaimed by some churches.
It was easy to detect these religious tensions after the president said his inappropriate relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky is now a private matter "between me, the two people I love the most and our God." Here's a sample of reactions.
* While her father, the Rev. Billy Graham, has remained politely silent, writer Anne Graham Lotz said the president "has no moral character." She was just as appalled by the public's reaction. "When I drove to this studio this morning, I had to obey all the traffic laws, the markings on the street. I couldn't crash through a red light," she told Fox News. "God's moral laws are like those traffic markings. They're for our benefit." The president, she said, is a reckless driver and "he's going to hurt himself and a lot of others, and the American people seem to stand by and cheer him on."
* The dean of Washington National (Episcopal) Cathedral praised Clinton for his efforts on behalf of women, minorities and homosexuals. But the Rev. Nathan Baxter added, in a Sunday sermon: "Our desire to keep sin private is a judgment upon all of us. Unless we acknowledge moral failing - without excuse - the soul of our nation will not heal. More importantly, our children will be even more confused as to whether the truest treasure of our common life is found in the state of the economy or the character of our moral integrity."
* As always, Clinton and other Southern Baptists have been free to disagree. The denomination's spokesman on social issues called for Clinton's resignation and suggested that former President Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist, be asked to serve as vice president under Southern Baptist Al Gore. "Bill Clinton looked the American people in the eye and lied to them for seven months, then refused to apologize. And there is probably worse news to come," the Rev. Richard Land told Baptist Press.
Meanwhile, a Baptist Alliance leader tried to walk a fine line, speaking to the "moderate" Associated Baptist Press. "Let's don't define morality so narrowly that only personal concerns count and at the same time let's not define morality so broadly that personal moral concerns don't count," said the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy, author of the book "Adultery and Grace."
* The president remains a Southern Baptist, but he now worships at Foundry United Methodist, his wife's church and a center for progressives. Shortly before Clinton spoke, Foundry's pastor appeared on CNN and compared him with a troubled biblical leader. "King David did something that was much worse than anything that President Clinton is alleged to have done," said the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, referring to David's plot to kill his lover's husband. "And King David, if I read my Bible correctly, was not impeached."