At Service, Grief Overtakes Weary Clinton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 14, 1998; Page A30
President Clinton, who so many times has presented himself as comforter to the stricken, yesterday was himself the stricken man.
As Clinton gazed at the 10 flag-draped caskets before him at Andrews Air Force base, a tear streaked down the right side of his drawn face, leaving a glistening path that stayed there for the rest of the ceremony.
When he spoke, his voice was hoarse and heavy, at times little more than a whisper. And when it was time to leave, television cameras captured the president in the back of his limousine, bowing his head and rubbing his hand into the bridge of his nose.
Clinton has many times been called on to be the voice of national grief -- after the horror of the Oklahoma City bombing, and the plane crash in Croatia that took the life of his close friend, Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown. But never before has Clinton appeared in public looking quite so drained and disconsolate as he did yesterday morning. And never before have the incongruities of Clinton's presidency been more vividly on display.
The morning was a thoroughly public moment, one of those majestic occasions when a president is most clearly leader of all the people. The afternoon found Clinton absorbed in a thoroughly private moment, utterly lacking in majesty, as he retreated to the White House to prepare to be questioned Monday by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr in the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation.
White House officials said Clinton was emotionally shaken by an hour-long meeting, before the start of the ceremony, with the families of people who perished in last week's African embassy bombings. Yet the president's pained, weary visage suggested that the combined demands of both his official duties and his personal travails may have tapped out his emotional reserves.
At the end of the ceremony, as Clinton watched the coffins being loaded into hearses, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton kept glancing at her husband, with a look of concern on her face.
If Clinton has reached the point of exhaustion, it would hardly be a surprise. A hyperkinetic president under normal circumstances, Clinton has responded to the stress of the Lewinsky investigation by plunging into even more frenetic activity.
A card game with friends in Arkansas one night last month stretched on until 5 a.m. A cross-country political jaunt earlier this week included two consecutive 20-hour days and a red-eye flight that brought Clinton back home at 6 a.m. Wednesday.
In remarks at a Los Angeles fund-raiser Tuesday night, he talked about the public problems he is trying to solve as president, his voice rising and his words speeding up. He banged the lectern as he spoke.
His comments suggested a president facing a sordid legal battle trying hard to remind listeners, and perhaps himself, that there is a higher purpose to politics. "The truth is that most of you will do all right" no matter how Democrats do, he told the well-heeled contributors. "But the people who are serving our food here tonight, the people that are parking cars, the people that work in every place of business that I passed on the way up here tonight, it makes a whole lot of difference to them and their grandchildren."
Those words were an echo of those Clinton offered once before when allegations of sexual indiscretions were threatening his career. In the New Hampshire Democratic primary of 1992, after the Gennifer Flowers controversy broke, Clinton's mantra to voters was that the election was about their future, not his past.
Speaking of his own presidency, Clinton said, "No matter what you read, every day has been a joy for me and I have loved it."
On other occasions, Clinton's gift for empathy and the rituals of public grief have helped him regain his confidence as a leader. The most striking example was in 1995. Clinton, according to aides who worked with him then, was dejected after Democrats were routed in mid-term elections the previous November. With Republicans ascendant, Clinton was for the moment sidelined in Washington's policy debate. But the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building showed that, in moments of national shock or crisis, there is no substitute for the president. Clinton's public display of sorrow and resolve won praise even from his most vituperative critics, and seemed to lift his presidency.
Clinton yesterday spoke with resolve. "No matter what it takes," he said, "we must find those responsible for these evil acts and see that justice is done."
But the steely words were uttered by someone whose emotions were clearly frayed. He returned to the White House, one senior aide said, struck by the utter senselessness of the deaths. For the rest of the day, another aide said, Clinton's thoughts seemed to keep drifting back to the scene in the hangar. There, in a closed-off area, each family sat at its own table, and the Clintons made their way through, talking to everyone.
"There was a level of intimacy," said one White House aide who accompanied Clinton. "These families took him into their grief."
As for Clinton's own mood, the aide said, "He was quite grim." Back at the White House, he added, "The work is the work and he's doing it. But this was a very hard day for him."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company