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President Clinton shakes hands in Chicago on Wednesday. (AFP)


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Clinton on the Road and in His Element

By Ceci Connolly and John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 9, 1998; Page A01

Late Tuesday night, as he dined during a howling midwestern storm under a tent that shook as if it might up and blow away, President Clinton found a metaphor for his own travails.

"I was thinking when all this storm came up, when the tent began to sway, this is the way I live every day in Washington," Clinton told a crowd of Democratic contributors. "Believe me, I've found that if you just keep standing up, most of the time the tent won't fall. And if the storm blows over you, you won't melt.

"Ninety percent of it is just showing up," Clinton added, echoing a famous line often attributed to comedian Woody Allen. Then, explaining why he perseveres in the face of adversity, Clinton paraphrased a quip Mark Twain first coined about always doing right: "It gratifies your friends and confounds your enemies."

Clinton's comments won appreciative laughter from the supporters who had paid $15,000 per couple to join him for mustard-crusted salmon. Yet the public joking hinted at private, and more serious, sentiments. With the Paula Jones sexual harassment case dismissed but the investigation of the Monica S. Lewinsky controversy pending, the presidential mood this spring is a mix of relief and resentment, according to people who have spoken to him.

Clinton feels he has had to endure a season of accusations that he believes stem from a partisan prosecutor and Washington news media that thrive on scandal but are out of touch with average Americans, according to friends and advisers who have spoken to him in recent weeks. Barring several days immediately after the Lewinsky allegations broke, when Clinton's morale plummeted, he has always believed in his ability to withstand the battering.

Both Clinton and his aides believe that the agenda he is promoting will allow him to rise above personal controversy -- just as it did during previous stretches of turbulent political weather.

The four days of campaign-style events this week blend politically popular themes with a renewed commitment to his ambitious second-term plans. The lineup: Monday, gun control; Tuesday, Social Security; yesterday, school construction; and today, a defiant trip to the heart of tobacco country.

Aides and allies say the president's priorities have not changed. But a brief respite from the sex-and-perjury controversy in Washington has enabled him to return to the ideas and activities that capture his imagination. Brainstorming and barnstorming his way across the country, Clinton is talking about what he hopes will be the political and policy ingredients of his legacy.

Yesterday, touring an elementary school on Chicago's South Side, he made a high-profile appeal for rebuilding America's ailing schools, saying "the most important infrastructure for tomorrow is the infrastructure of education."

This week's schedule is "Clinton Politics 101," said George Stephanopoulos, a commentator who spent four years in the Clinton White House. "They're doing the president's best issues presented in the ways in which he's at his best."

On weeks like this, it's the old loquacious, wonky Clinton undeterred by scandal, campaigning on. "I'm reminded of all the lamenting during the 1996 campaign that that would be his last," said presidential scholar Charles O. Jones. "It's not real easy with this fella to tell it from the first because he never stops campaigning."

Before the State of the Union address last January, Clinton offered a "beautiful sixth-year agenda," said Jones. Then charges of having sex with a young aide and urging her to cover it up derailed that momentum. "The drift I see since then on Capitol Hill is in part because he's been distracted and he's been looking for things to distract him," Jones concluded.

This week, Clinton revived his far-reaching agenda, claiming that nothing less than a moral imperative dictated immediate action.

"There are lots of people who think we ought to just be tending to our knitting more and be less involved around the world," he said, defending U.S. intervention in hot spots such as Bosnia and the Middle East. "I personally believe we should be more involved."

It would be "unconscionable," Clinton said, for Congress not to pass a tobacco reform bill this year and Social Security legislation in 1999. And there is a "moral responsibility" to address fears over global climate change and clean water.

Even yesterday's pitch for more school construction money was painted in grand terms. "I want to try to put the issue of modernizing schools in a larger context for you -- about what it means to prepare our country for the 21st century. It is just 632 days away," he told students at the Rachel Carson Elementary School. "It is a responsibility of good citizens in a democracy to bear down and do more in the good times, not to relax and pat ourselves on the back."

Clinton proposes spending $11 billion in tax credits over 10 years to pay interest on $22 billion locally issued school construction bonds.

In Chicago, Clinton also tended to electoral matters. He raised $500,000 for his debt-ridden party and stumped for Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.). In Tuesday night's free-form speech at the dinner hosted by Michael Jordan's next door neighbors, Clinton confidently predicted Democrats will pick up seats in November because he helped neutralize the "wedge" issues used so effectively against them in 1994 when the GOP took control of Congress.

Clinton, when on the road, often gives vent to personal feelings kept under restraint in Washington. In late 1996, in Australia, he compared himself to Richard Jewell, the security guard falsely accused of planting a bomb at the Atlanta Olympics. And just last month in South Africa, Clinton's thoughts seemed partly back home when he said President Nelson Mandela's career was a rebuke to "power lust, division, and obsessive smallness in politics."

While Clinton is feeling increasingly confident, even people close to him acknowledge that the dismissal of the Jones case is merely a temporary reprieve from the ongoing investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

"It would be wrong to sound a horn that all is back to normal," said Jeff Eller, a former Clinton adviser who is helping prepare for a Clinton's appearance at a forum on race in Houston next week.

One White House official said the political war with Starr and his Republican allies continues unabated. "We fully expect the right wing to continue to attack the president for political reasons," said presidential adviser Doug Sosnik.

Republican detractors say this week's trip may be "Air Force One-driven therapy for the president," as consultant Mike Murphy put it. "But whether or not he squares the truth with the allegations becomes his single biggest defining moment."

Yet at least one academic said Clinton may be writing a new chapter in presidential history. "Everybody talks about Bill Clinton's legacy," said Georgetown political scientist Stephen Wayne. "I think this administration will be remembered for political survival under the worst kinds of conditions."

Connolly reported from Chicago.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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