By John F. Harris
Relief, aides said, was the first and most obvious reaction among Clinton, the senior members of his staff and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. She was with her husband when he learned that a case that had been hanging over the White House for four of the five years of his presidency had suddenly lifted. Clinton was incredulous after talking with attorney Robert S. Bennett and wondered if he was being set up for an April Fools' prank.
Assured that it was no joke, Clinton dispatched press secretary Michael McCurry to a press center to offer a low-key report of the presidential mood: "I think the president is pleased to receive the vindication he's been waiting a long time for."
But emotions more complex than joy were also flowing. One was anger at a case that has already imposed vast financial and still-uncertain political costs on the president. "There's been a lot of collateral damage from this," said a senior White House official, "from what in my view was always a political pursuit made by the president's opponents."
Clinton's personal and White House lawyers are also busy calculating what effect Judge Susan Webber Wright's decision will have on Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, who is investigating whether Clinton or associates coached Monica S. Lewinsky to make false statements in the Jones case.
The early White House calculation, according to senior aides, was resignation that Starr's probe would continue, but with diminished peril for the president.
"This is a turning point," said one longtime Clinton adviser. "It's closure," at least on one set of charges in the web of sexual misconduct and obstruction-of-justice allegations that have entangled Clinton in his second term.
The dismissal, while not bearing directly on Starr's case, will provide new ammunition in the White House's barely veiled campaign against the independent counsel. "I think this is major," said one White House official involved in Clinton's damage control operation. "It's going to make it more and more likely that people will call the political motives and tactics followed in this matter into question."
The news from Little Rock, via Washington, came in a decidedly incongruous locale. Clinton was in this sweltering capital tonight on the penultimate day of an 11-day sub-Saharan tour in which he has been mostly able to stick to his African agenda and keep scandal questions temporarily off stage.
It was a day full of surprises and surreal contrasts. At Dal Diam, a dusty village outside the capital, a woman came up to the touring head of state this afternoon and presented him with a baby goat she had named "Bill Clinton," which the president returned to its owners with thanks.
The president's party had been back at Le Meridian hotel for about an hour when Bennett left a message with White House deputy counsel Bruce Lindsey Clinton's oldest and most intimate friend on the White House staff to have Clinton call right away. It was just before 9 p.m. in Senegal, which is five hours ahead of Washington, and the president was just finishing up an interview with Sam Donaldson of ABC News.
Was Clinton smiling when he got the news? "He wasn't crying," said McCurry, who was at pains to appear no more than mildly pleased. But later when a Fox News camera crew outside Clinton's hotel window captured the president, a cigar in his month, picking up a drum and then a guitar it was apparent that he was ebullient.
Back in Washington, the mood was effusive. As soon as Clinton got off the line with Bennett, he phoned White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff. Gathered in Ruff's second-story White House office to listen in were three other people who play critical roles in Clinton's political defense team: deputy chief of staff John Podesta and White House advisers Rahm Emanuel and Paul Begala.
The White House agenda today had been to tout a U.S. program to train African armies for peacekeeping, a $20 million-a-year effort known as the African Crisis Response Initiative. Clinton visited U.S. and Senegalese troops involved in training exercises at nearby Thies Military Base.
Under the circumstances, aides joked, they could scarcely complain that Clinton's earlier appearance had been chased out of the spotlight by late-breaking news.
As it happened, McCurry said, the dramatic announcement did not upset the Clintons' plans. While the press secretary was briefing reporters, vendors of African jewelry and art, apparently including the drum Clinton would find so useful, were heading up to the presidential suite. "At the moment, they're doing some shopping," said McCurry.
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