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WHITE HOUSE JOURNAL
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By Terry M. Neal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 1998; Page A18

Sure, history was being made on Capitol Hill, but that wasn't going to change the fact that Leif Ericson Day was fast approaching and President Clinton needed to proclaim it.

"There are a whole lot of Norse and Norwegian people who celebrate this thing," said Phillip Caplan, whose job it is to make sure the president gets the bill celebrating the Norwegian explorer and a summary of the measure by today's deadline.

Just during the morning, a dozen or so color-coded binders (green for action; blue for information; pink for correspondence; red for classified) have piled up on Caplan's desk, each requiring a different task. And, for the record, none of them had anything to do with Monica S. Lewinsky or the historic impeachment inquiry vote in Congress.

A Kosovo speech, a Medicare announcement, a presidential letter to Republican congressional leadership. Big things. Little things. Lots and lots of things.

Caplan has one of the most important jobs in the White House. His title is assistant to the president and staff secretary, which is a fancy way of saying he controls the flow of presidential paper. Deputy chief of staff John Podesta used to have the job.

Richard Darman had it in the Reagan administration.

With the exception of the most personal and confidential documents, everything that goes to the president comes through this office. With Congress wrapping up its work, it's been very busy for Caplan lately.

At 8 p.m. Tuesday, he was out to dinner with a friend when he got a page from White House congressional lobbyist Larry Stein. The president needed to veto the House agriculture appropriations bill. Tonight. Caplan immediately goes back to the White House, where he reads through all of the backup material, drafts a summary and presents the bill to Clinton when he returns from an event a little before midnight.

"Unfortunately, it was a late night for me and my family," said Caplan, 34, who is married and has a 13-month-old son.

The phone in his West Wing office rings. "Uh-huh, uh-huh," he says. "We might have to insert something on methyl bromide, but I don't know."

Caplan's secretary, Carol Cleveland, who's been at the White House since Gerald R. Ford was president, whips into the office: "Kosovo's being pulled, [national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy"] Berger's making changes." Carol walks very fast and has perfected the art of interrupting so unobtrusively, it's hardly necessary for Caplan to stop his conversations.

In seconds, Caplan approves an insert into a brief announcement about Kosovo that the president is about to make within the next hour at the White House. On such important issues, Caplan's job is not to influence policy, but to make sure the president gets the information he needs quickly. On other less sensitive topics, his job would be to make sure that the president's words are clear, concise and consistent with the advice of his many advisers.

One of Caplan's deputies, David Goodfriend, walks into the office. "Josh wants the big-type thing," Goodfriend says, referring to a copy of the large-type speech that one of the speechwriters needs. Caplan nods.

Health care adviser Chris Jennings calls. "Yeah, uh-huh. Okay, I'll do my best."

Goodfriend is hanging out in front of Caplan's door as if he needs to talk to him. "How we doing on [Senate Majority Leader]

Trent Lott?" Caplan asks. "Fine," says Goodfriend.

Caplan and his staff are helping the president draft a letter to Lott and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), urging them to reauthorize the Older Americans Act, which provides a number of services to needy elderly people.

There are what seem like a zillion other things to do. The National Security Council has sent the president a classified document, something to do with Cuba. Personnel director Bob J. Nash has nominated someone to the Federal Maritime Commission. The president and Gingrich have been corresponding about their trips to Ireland, and Clinton has a letter that needs to be sent to the speaker. All need to be reviewed by Caplan.

"This is a busy office, and it's like that every day," he says. He's generally too busy to worry about or pay attention to the Lewinsky matter, but he concedes that it's impossible to avoid the subject altogether.

Around 11:30 a.m., the president begins his statement on Kosovo and Medicare and, as usual, the speech is piped throughout the White House. Caplan turns on his television to see whether it's being picked up by CNN, MSNBC or another news channel. It's not. Instead, all the channels are airing live coverage of the House debate on the impeachment inquiry.

"Nope," he says, spinning around in his chair, allowing himself a wary smile. "There's something going on on the Hill today."


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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