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President Clinton (Reuters)

It's Lonelier Than Usual for the Man at the Top

By David Maraniss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 16, 1998; Page A01

Bill Clinton, as he struggles to survive the most serious crisis of his career, has become a study in presidential loneliness.

His life was built on two things – words and friends – that suddenly seem of less use to him. In public, he has offered up few words to explain the mess he is in, and in private, almost none of his legendary legion of friends is willing or able to hear him say much more. The president who once chafed at the confinements of his job by calling the White House "the crown jewel in the American penal system" is now confronted by the prisoner's paradox: an existence in which he is rarely by himself and yet always alone.

Clinton's aversion to being alone has been a defining trait of his life. As a teenager in Arkansas, he invited friends to his house just to watch him finish a crossword puzzle. During these last few perilous weeks, he has engaged in his customary pursuit of crowds and reassurance. He brings friends in for popcorn and a movie. He dances past midnight with celebrities at a state dinner. He lingers wistfully at a midday farewell party for a longtime White House aide. He rallies with Democratic troops on Capitol Hill. He heads to the heartland to touch hands along the rope line. He sifts through stacks of supportive letters and dissects internal polls indicating the public is with him.

But something is different in these last weeks since the allegations of presidential sex and perjury broke, according to interviews with friends, aides and associates from all parts of Clinton's life. All presidents operate in a bubble of agents and aides, but the distance that inevitably separates even this most gregarious of presidents from the rest of humanity has become greater, his sense of isolation more noticeable. He spent a lifetime using his empathy and charisma to turn strangers into friends, accumulating them by the thousands, remembering their individual histories, memorizing their phone numbers and their parents' names. "He is president because of all that," said David Mixner, who befriended Clinton during the '60s antiwar movement. But now, said another disheartened pal whose friendship extends back a similar length, their friend the president has become "a stranger in a strange land."

The surest evidence of how much things have changed is the fact that Clinton's most intimate conversations seem to be with his legal counselors. These men, including Mickey Kantor, Robert S. Bennett, David E. Kendall and Charles F.C. Ruff, have little in common except their client but to varying degrees, they have become not only the president's lawyers but also his brothers, confidants, psychiatrists. If he has not told them everything, they apparently have heard more than anyone, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, in some matters. To one or more of them, he has offered details of the most indelicate troubles of his life involving Paula Jones, Whitewater and Monica S. Lewinsky. When he is frustrated, confused, feeling like a wounded animal, he is most likely to turn to them to talk about it. The conversations might never come around to his present predicament, but will calm him down.

That his lawyers have emerged as his closest confidants now is largely a matter of pragmatism. As one person close to the situation said bluntly: "Who the hell else is he going to talk to? He is not going to talk to Hillary about some of this stuff."

Who else indeed. These are not comfortable topics to discuss with daughter Chelsea. He has never had a father to confide in – his biological father, Bill Blythe, was killed before his birth; the stepfather from whom he drew his name, Roger Clinton, was a troubled alcoholic who died when Clinton was in college. His mother, who never wanted to hear bad news from him and preferred to live in her own fantasy world, died four years ago. His troubled little brother, Roger, is not one to offer advice or keep secrets.

Vice President Gore has declared himself the president's loyal friend and made it clear that he does not really want to know the details. Vernon E. Jordan Jr. might have served the role of brother-confessor in the past, but now, caught up in the Lewinsky investigation himself, he has had to keep a certain distance. It did not go unnoticed that Jordan, a regular at White House functions, was off the list at the Feb. 5 state dinner for British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair himself proved a fine friend for a few days during the crisis, but he has his own country to run.

Clinton has always felt comfortable with Bruce Lindsey, his ghostly silent deputy counsel, a longtime friend from Arkansas, but Lindsey is more the fixer and loyal servant than confidant. He is there to play hearts with the president and do whatever needs to be done to ease Clinton's way. Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, another Arkansas pal in the White House, said recently that he seeks to be "supportive" of his friend "in good times and bad," but that Clinton has not sought his ear. Among the other Arkansas friends who came to Washington with him, deputy counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr. is long dead from suicide and the hulking Webster L. Hubbell, former associate attorney general, who served hard time for double-billing his old law firm, has been quietly discarded in his post-prison days.

James Carville and Paul Begala, Clinton's pit bull consultants, are more concerned with learning about Clinton's adversaries than in dealing with the truth and consequences of their own man. He has never bared his soul to them. The discredited political mastermind, Dick Morris, banished for his own sexual transgressions, is one telephone call away from working his way back into Clinton's vortex, but has been in temporary exile again since he offered up the hypothetical explanation of the president's behavior: Perhaps, he theorized to a Los Angeles radio station, Hillary Clinton disliked normal marital relations, compelling her husband to turn elsewhere. So much for friend Morris.

George Stephanopoulos, the former aide who once spent more time at Clinton's side than anyone, and often shuddered in private with worst-case scenarios of his boss, now shares them on television with the whole nation. He has said that he never felt like a Clinton confidant or peer in any case. Other aides of his generation who stayed in the White House after Stephanopoulos left now plot tactics and strategies for the president without having a clue, they acknowledge, about what he did or how he really feels.

Erskine B. Bowles, the chief of staff, has shown a disinclination for personal controversy and has tried to keep the White House going as though Monica Lewinsky and Kenneth W. Starr did not exist. Michael McCurry, the press secretary, has announced to the clamoring press pack that on these issues he is determinedly and safely out of the loop. Friends of Bill from Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Little Rock, from his days at Georgetown, Yale and Oxford, offer variations on the same theme. Whenever he was in trouble in the past, they stormed to his defense. This time they have tried to support him as best they can, but they have felt a certain distance.

In almost every case, the explanation they offer is the same one that applies to McCurry, McLarty and others close to the president professionally or personally – they are worried about getting caught in the tangled web of Clinton investigations. Every conversation with their friend comes with the unspoken subtext of potential legal bills, especially since Starr, the independent counsel, has shown such aggression in hauling people before his federal grand jury.

"This last month has been harder than ever for all of us," said one longtime friend from Arkansas. "When you see that everybody who is a friend or close to him has been subpoenaed, investigated, written about, it is just going to put another kind of artificial protective sort of distance there. If you talk to him at all, the unspoken mutual concern is: Don't say anything that will get you in trouble. Don't say anything that will get me in trouble."

These concerns are both a reflection of Clinton's behavior and a sign of the times. Jody Powell, press secretary to President Jimmy Carter, said he could not imagine working with the same fears and concerns that haunt McCurry and other Clinton aides. "What they are going through, I never thought about – this ludicrous business of staff getting subpoenaed left and right and asked about every note and conversation. I remember when my friend Ham went through that Studio 54 crap" – Hamilton Jordan, Carter's top aide, was investigated on allegations of using cocaine – "I didn't get called in and threatened by a lawyer and beat up and all that."

The burden this situation places on Clinton's friends only exacerbates the sense of separation they feel from the president anyway simply because of the distance between his office and the rest of the world. One Arkansas friend said she felt a bit more removed from Clinton year by year. "He is absolutely a more lonely figure," she said. "I think the longer anyone is president, the less possible it becomes for even the closest of friends to be totally themselves, totally relaxed and natural." Other friends noticed that Clinton seemed ever more circumspect, having come to realize that almost anything he says will become public – the notion that everyone leaks, even good friends.

"My experience with everybody in public life, and tenfold with the president, is that they have to assume that even in the most confidential of situations, what they say is public knowledge," said Mixner. "Even the most devoted loyalists can't help but brag of a confidence shared by a president. It is sad and tragic and does indeed create an isolated place and a more stressful place."

The contradiction of the presidency – feeling alone in the midst of people – is there even in the best of circumstances. The president is surrounded by people all day, every day. He lives and works inside the bubble of 35 Secret Service agents who accompany him from the moment he strolls down the steps of the residence. Around them is another protective ring of 100 uniformed agents. He has a personal aide at his side from dawn to midnight. Personal secretaries record his every appointment and utterance. Electronic monitors announce his movements. He is served all day by scores of counselors, special assistants, senior advisers, ushers, cooks, stewards. Someone among them knows that he has an allergy to chocolate and an aversion to heavy cream.

None of those people around him, nor any of his lifelong friends, can know the pressures that a president faces, and none of them can know his deepest fears and insecurities, not even the lawyers he confides in these days. In that sense, he has no peers, only predecessors. Thomas Jefferson said the presidency brings "nothing but drudgery and a daily loss of friends." Woodrow Wilson said he "never dreamed such loneliness and desolation of heart possible." William Howard Taft called the White House "the loneliest place in the world." During an earlier crisis, Clinton lamented that "sometimes I really get lonesome for why I came here."

But Clinton had spent his life wanting to be president, preparing for it, amassing the network of friends that would help get him there. That his friends are of less help to him now is not entirely a surprise. Before he came to Washington, he left one family friend behind, and in that moment there was an odd foreshadowing of all the troubles that would follow him. On Jan. 16, 1993, his final day in Little Rock before heading east for his inauguration, Clinton jogged from the governor's mansion toward downtown, carrying a shoe box under his arm. Inside was a small frog.

When he reached the Arkansas River, Clinton scrambled down a steep embankment to the water's edge and released the frog into the marshy brush. The creature, he explained, would forgo the move east and remain in Arkansas, "where it can live a normal life."


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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