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White House Gets Outsiders' Advice

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Presidential aide John Podesta. (Reuters file)

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Full Coverage: Including More Post Stories

Defenders Optimistic as Battle Moves to Political Realm (Washington Post, Sept. 25)

Clinton Allies Seek Compromise on Hill (Washington Post, Sept. 23)

White House Strategy Evolving Day by Day (Washington Post, Sept. 17)


By Robert G. Kaiser and John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 26, 1998; Page A01

The call goes out from the White House every morning at 11 to some two dozen Democrats. The recipients include Washington lawyers and lobbyists, political consultants, administration officials, and -- the ones who talk the most -- pollsters. Their daily conference call is devoted to one complex subject: how to save Bill Clinton's presidency.

This unusual collaboration began in the Roosevelt Room of the White House the day after President Clinton's Aug. 17 speech to the nation. The discussion intensified two weeks ago in the conference room used by John D. Podesta, the presidential aide leading Clinton's defense efforts. That meeting came on the day that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report to Congress was released. According to participants, the object that Friday was to contain panic -- "just hold on through the weekend," as one put it. Since then the meetings have moved to the telephone; they give the outsiders a chance to hear the White House line and an opportunity to alter it, and give White House officials reality checks.

Not all the participants consider themselves Clinton enthusiasts. Some say they are trying to help because they deplore Starr's methods, or the Republicans' eagerness to exploit his report for political purposes. The White House "has no right to expect the help they've received and the amount of effort people have put into this," said one participant in the conference call who asked not to be named. He referred to bad relations between many Democrats and the White House over the years.

Clinton has long nursed suspicions of the political establishment that now takes part in this daily effort to save his skin. But in Washington, politics can conquer all. "This was a call to arms," one unenthusiastic participant in the conference calls said yesterday, "that just had to be answered."

The participants include Carter administration veterans such as Jody Powell and lobbyist Ann Wexler, lawyers including Lloyd Cutler, Richard Ben Veniste and James Hamilton, lobbyists including Lawrence O'Brien Jr. and Thomas Hale Boggs Jr., three pollsters -- Mark Penn, Mark Mellman and Geoffrey Garin -- and a number of former Clinton administration officials now in private life. White House communications director Ann Lewis takes part. Steve Ricchetti, brought back to the White House for the defense effort, convenes the call.

By yesterday, the first day's panic had yielded to near euphoria, participants said. The main topic was a new CBS-New York Times Poll that found a clear majority of Americans would now be satisfied with an outcome of the Monica S. Lewinsky crisis that involved no further punishment of the president. According to the poll, Clinton's public standing is bouncing back, and by 54 to 35 percent, Americans disapprove of the way the House Judiciary Committee is handling the crisis.

According to pollster Garin, one of the White House's problems has been the sour feelings toward the president in Washington. Through the conference calls, Garin said, information has been shared about polls showing Democrats in tight races won't be hurt by calling for censuring Clinton rather than impeaching him. Such information from the field provides "a certain amount of reassurance," Garin said.

Penn, Clinton's pollster, does the most talking, sharing numbers from his regular overnight polls and from the findings of his firm. The outside pollsters, Garin and Mellman, are influential, according to one participant, because they have no taint of bias in Clinton's favor, as Penn may for some.

Several participants said members of their group have taken on assignments to speak to key congressional Democrats, often with good results. One noted that House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) was defending Clinton's interests now, despite chilly relations between him and the president in the past.

One participant said the calls' usefulness has faded a bit in recent days, as the number of participants has grown and the focus has blurred. This participant has a somewhat more skeptical take on why the White House is reaching out to old Washington hands: "It's to make these people feel like they're close to the White House, and therefore they have some ownership in the White House succeeding."

But several other participants said the exchanges are beneficial in both directions. People who want to help can get useful arguments from the White House. An example is the way so many Democrats were on message Tuesday, the day after the latest document release: Starr had been unfair in his report to Congress by not directly quoting Lewinsky's statement that Clinton never asked her to lie.

Other participants said the calls are striking for how blunt people are in telling the White House what it is doing wrong. In one recent call, participants told officials to back off their line that pursuing Clinton is bad for America. "That may be working in the nation, but it's not working on the Hill," said one participant.

Adviser Paul Begala said the calls also help demonstrate that the scandal has not sent the White House into isolation. "Very often when any White House is in a political storm there's a strong tendency to hunker down and bunker down," he said. "But we've made an extraordinary effort to reach out to people who have been through tough times in the past."

Lewis said she could recall no precedent for the calls. The daily conversations have "enabled us to maximize our effectiveness . . . on the Hill," she said. And had participation become a status symbol? Had her office received calls from nonparticipants who wanted to take part? "Umm, that probably happens," Lewis replied.

Others who take part include former White House aides Leon E. Panetta, Lisa Caputo, Lanny J. Davis, Howard Paster, Pat Griffin, Harold Ickes, Jane Sherburne and Don Baer; party activist and lobbyist Michael Berman, political consultants Robert Squier and James Carville; political scientist Sam Popkin; and Greg Craig, who left a State Department post to help the White House head off impeachment.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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