By John F. Harris
That was perfectly normal.
But when the speech was over, Clinton briefly waved and rushed out of the hotel ballroom. No lingering to shake hands and work the crowd, no impromptu moments when he might be in earshot of a reporter's shouted question.
A few hours later, White House press secretary Michael McCurry started his daily briefing with a dry announcement about a meeting Clinton held earlier with disabled workers. Perfectly routine.
But the press secretary's performance was in front of an overflow crowd in the briefing room and was being carried live on CNN. It was yet another sign that the Clinton White House, half a year after the Lewinsky scandal first erupted, was back in crisis mode.
At least sort of. As Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who unveiled a new stamp at an East Room ceremony, put on a face of business-as-usual, the rest of the White House seemed to be operating in two separate universes.
One part of the place was following a brisk routine of meetings, speeches, bill signings (of legislation dealing with private-mortgage insurance), executive actions (relating to enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act) and visits by foreign leaders (the president-elect of Ecuador).
The other part was humming with adrenaline and anxiety. The mood at the White House is far from the sky-is-falling dread that consumed aides when the Lewinsky story broke in January. Even so, there was a palpable mood of uncertainty as aides freely acknowledged that they did not know what new dramas the coming days would bring.
Clinton loyalists one moment would confidently voice the official line -- that Lewinsky's immunity agreement with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr is a good thing, since it could lead to a speedy resolution of the case and an ultimate vindication of Clinton. The next moment they would nervously trade speculation with reporters: What do you think she will confess in her testimony?
For nearly all Clinton aides, even very senior ones, speculation is all that is possible. White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff has clamped down on information so tightly that only a handful of lawyers have any detailed understanding of Clinton's legal position. "People may be nervous," one mid-level aide said, "but there is not much choice. We'll read about it when it comes."
Many White House aides said they believe there probably would be embarrassments about Clinton's sex life. But they also expressed confidence that embarrassments alone are not enough to seriously endanger Clinton's presidency. After a half-year of this scandal, one White House official said, awkward revelations are so common they "are like wallpaper."
Some White House advisers said the next several weeks would show how well their months-long political campaign to highlight what they contend is Starr's bias and vindictiveness has worked in preparing the public to dismiss whatever new allegations about Clinton may be coming.
The absence of hard information occasionally turned McCurry's briefing into a series of questions and non-answers. He allowed that it was Clinton's lawyers' idea, not his own, to give no official White House acknowledgment of a fact that had been widely reported days ago -- that Clinton had received a subpoena from Starr.
"Particularly on the matter of the subpoena, I sort of said I think it would be best if we could answer that question in a straightforward manner," McCurry said. "But, for whatever reason, we're not."
While news of the testimony agreement raced through the White House yesterday afternoon, McCurry said Clinton is far more detached from the case than reporters covering it. "He is doing his job right now, and he's not as preoccupied with all of you as you are with yourself," the spokesman told reporters, prompting a wave of laughter in the briefing room.
Clinton did not mention the furor when he spoke to the World Congress on Education International, a project of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. He said Republicans were ignoring his budget requests for education and young people, including $871 million for a summer jobs program, $260 million to finance more reading tutors and $140 million for a program to help disadvantaged middle-school students make it to college.
"This is something that has to be lifted above political partisanship. This is something that ought to be beyond all debate," Clinton told the educators. "What seems so self-evident to you and me is still not entirely clear to all decision-makers."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company