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Clinton in Senegal
President Clinton was cheered by children during his visit to Goree Island, off Senegal's coast. (AP)


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White House Hails Dismissal, Africa Trip

By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 3, 1998; Page A01

GOREE ISLAND, Senegal, April 2—The setting was solemn but President Clinton's mood was soaring. Here in the former slave port that symbolizes a tragic past for millions of African Americans, Clinton today finished a sub-Saharan journey with an ebullient tribute to "the resiliency of the human spirit and the future of this great continent."

Eleven days and six nations after leaving Washington, Clinton headed back home tonight, and he and his senior aides hoped that those words about resiliency and the future also apply to his own presidency.

A combination of a good trip and the dismissal of the Paula Jones sexual harassment case have opened a window for a White House team which, by the admission of its own members, was badly in need of air. "This was great, this was great," Clinton kept repeating to members of his traveling delegation this evening as they headed for home.

Some senior aides, both with Clinton and back in Washington, shared this buoyancy, predicting a new phase in his presidency. The resolution of the Jones suit and the heightened prestige created by the Africa trip, they said, will allow Clinton to press an agenda without virtually all his actions being viewed through a lens of scandal.

Others were far more sour, predicting that any respite from controversy will be short-lived and confessing deep anger at Republicans and the news media over their handling of Jones's allegations. Those resentments are shared, some advisers say, by the president and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Even before the ruling in the Jones case Wednesday, Africa had plainly provided refuge for Clinton. Perhaps for the first time, in the view of some senior aides, Clinton was enjoying a second term that even roughly approximated the one he had once imagined -- in sharp contrast to the long trail of allegations over campaign finance, sexual misconduct and obstruction of justice that for the most part have been the reality.

For the bookends of the trip, at the first stop in Ghana and here in Senegal, there were vast crowds waiting for Clinton -- a tonic for a politician who thrives as much as any on public approval.

Along the way -- in Uganda, Rwanda and South Africa -- Clinton played the moralist, talking about the need for America to confess its errors in Africa and delivering sermon-like speeches about replacing racial and ethnic hatred with tolerance.

Clinton touched on some of these themes again today, but he replaced the more remorseful tones of earlier in the trip with a celebratory message. While decrying the slave trade, in which millions of Africans were forcibly sent across the Atlantic from ports like Goree Island and elsewhere, Clinton led a round of applause for the African Americans who joined him on his delegation.

"America's struggle to overcome slavery and its legacy forms one of the most difficult chapters of our history," Clinton told a crowd of several hundred Americans and Senegalese. "Yet it is also one of the most heroic -- a triumph of courage, persistence and dignity. The long journey of African Americans proves that the spirit can never be enslaved. And that long journey is today embodied by the children of Africa who now lead America in all phases of our common life."

While Clinton spent his Africa trip preaching tolerance and contrition, those words hardly describe the mood of many on his own team as he returns to Washington. Venting his anger at the Jones lawsuit, which has shadowed Clinton for four of his five years as president, White House counselor Douglas Sosnik said: "It's been so much time, involving so many people, about so much nothing. It's all about people trying to use the judicial system to overturn an election they lost in the political system."

But another senior aide, Paul Begala, said that the capital may now be a less hostile environment for Clinton. With the Jones case thrown out, at least pending an appeal by her lawyers of Judge Susan Webber Wright's decision, Begala said, "Finally, Washington may go to where America has been for a long time."

Both President Clinton and Hillary Clinton addressed the Jones case briefly in Senegal today. "Well, obviously I'm pleased by the decision, and I think the judge's opinion speaks for itself," Clinton said. Asked if the Jones case had weakened the presidency, Clinton demurred: "Others should evaluate that question, but I need to keep working on the people's business, and that's what I intend to do."

Hillary Clinton addressed the controversy in a brief radio interview following an appearance this morning in Dakar, Senegal's capital, with a group of village women who have rallied to stop the practice of female genital mutilation. "Both Bill and I have felt throughout this whole thing that it would turn out fine, either at a trial or more appropriately as the judge ruled based on the fact that there was no evidence to support these groundless claims," she told the American Urban Radio Network, a news organization aimed at a predominantly black audience. "We haven't let any of this other stuff divert us, which is really one of the goals of the people behind all this: to try to divert the president's energy and discourage people. It hasn't worked and it will never work, because we know what the truth is and we know what we're trying to accomplish for the country."

"It's poetic justice" that the Jones case should be thrown out even as Clinton is returning from a successful trip to Africa, said Jesse L. Jackson, the administration's special envoy for democratization in Africa. "It's a convergence that could only be planned by God."

Clinton came to Goree Island at the urging of Hillary Clinton, who came here a year ago on an Africa tour with daughter Chelsea. Deeply moved, she said she told her husband that it was a sight he had to see. Heeding the advice, Clinton this afternoon joined a parade of personages as diverse as Pope John Paul II, singers Stevie Wonder and Harry Belafonte, South African President Nelson Mandela and Virginia's L. Douglas Wilder, the nation's first black elected governor, who have made the pilgrimage to this small island a few miles off the coast from Dakar. Like the others, Clinton visited the House of Slaves, which features dungeon-like cells of pale red stucco and a long covered walkway that leads out to the sea. The curator of the house said it was down this corridor that Africans were herded onto slave ships to be taken to the Americas.

For all its evocative power, Goree Island lately has been a source of considerable academic controversy. Le Monde, a French newspaper, outraged Senegalese authorities a year ago with a long article disputing Goree Island's reputation as a place where millions of Africans left for the Americas.

This debunking has been supported by Johns Hopkins University historian Philip Curtin, who has written that Goree Island "is a picturesque place" but was "marginal to the slave trade" compared with other ports on Africa's western coast. Curtin also questioned whether the House of Slaves really was a holding corral for slaves.

White House National Security Adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, the senior staff member in charge of planning Clinton's Africa tour, said he was aware of the dispute -- and indifferent to it. "Whether it was the most important or just one slave point," Berger said, "I don't think it matters. I think it's an important thing to see. "

As planned by White House stage managers, the stop at Goree Island was designed to symbolize the historical bridge between Africa and America -- a link with a shameful past but, in Clinton's view, a bountiful future based on cultural and economic trade.

But the domestic politics of the visit proved challenging for the White House, when the Goree Island stop became entangled with the question of whether the United States government should formally apologize for slavery. Clinton has steadfastly steered clear of a formal apology.

Earlier this trip, during impromptu remarks in Uganda, he said Americans must acknowledge moral lapses in Africa, including the fact that "European Americans received the fruits of the slave trade, and we were wrong in that." Today, however, he offered nothing approaching an apology, later telling reporters, "Most of my African American friends and advisers don't believe we should get into what was essentially a press story about whether there should be an apology for slavery in America."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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