By John F. Harris
EDGARTOWN, Mass.President Clinton's summer sojourn on Martha's Vineyard began with an announcement by his spokesman that the vacation would be an occasion for "repair work within his family."
A few days later, press secretary Michael McCurry reported that "the healing process" is "underway, but it's not done yet."
Later this week, a reporter asked for the latest news on the family recovery. By now, regular updates had become a source of levity. "I stand by my prior assessment," McCurry said, as laughter echoed in the makeshift briefing room set up here in the gymnasium of a local school. "With each day, we are getting more confident in that assessment."
There have been many peculiar things about the president's vacation this year, which began just a day after his nationally televised acknowledgment of his extramarital relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky. But perhaps strangest of all has been the spectacle of the president's aides and other loyalists talking freely about what they say is domestic turmoil at the Clinton household. Privately, people who know the Clintons have been even more blunt in describing what they say is an unmistakable chill between the president and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Chattering about the psychological dynamics of the first family is not, to put it mildly, the kind of thing that usually would ensure a secure future for any member of the Clinton team. In this season of embarrassment for the president, however, it has become acceptable for his subordinates to let people know he is in hot water on the home front.
Such statements are so unusual that some reporters who cover Clinton are vexed: Has the famous White House spin machine ceased to function? Or is all the talk about the Clintons' marriage a new and more sophisticated brand of spin?
Simply put, the White House's credibility is in such disrepair after seven months of the Lewinsky controversy that some reporters do not even believe it when they are told the president is having no fun on his vacation.
"It seems like they are trying to manage this like they do everything else, which is to play out a plausible scenario," said Bill Plante, a veteran White House reporter for CBS News. Like many colleagues here, Plante suspects that by promoting the line that the president is being punished for his Lewinsky indiscretions at home, the White House hopes to position itself later to argue that the president has already paid the proper price for a personal transgression.
As for the reports on the first lady's anger, Plante said, "Probably it's true but I don't think what they're playing out is based on any real knowledge of what's going on. . . . I can't recall another occasion when they've discussed the mood of the first family, particularly hers."
McCurry acknowledged that talking publicly about the Clinton marriage is unusual, but said the circumstances of this vacation are equally so. Far from trying to spin a story about Clinton's personal suffering, the spokesman said, he was trying simply to acknowledge the obvious in a way that would be credible to the public without intruding on the privacy of the first family.
"Under the circumstances, it was important to be candid by accurately portraying some sense of what's going on," he said.
He said he had not discussed with the Clintons what it was acceptable to tell reporters about their marriage, but that individual conversations with both of them gave him an implicit sense of the boundary. "I think they trusted me to put out just enough without saying too much," he said.
Other Clinton loyalists, in fact, have been much more explicit. Political consultant James Carville, speaking on CNN after the president's Aug. 17 speech, said of Hillary Clinton: "I think, to paraphrase Queen Victoria, she's not amused. I think the president's going to spend a little time in the woodshed here."
Even Roger Clinton, the president's brother, talked Thursday night on CNN's "Larry King Live" about the "very emotional, very powerful" times the president and his family are going through on their vacation.
"Oh, my God, it's got to be tough," said Roger Clinton, who added that his brother is "way down personally."
Michael Murphy, a Republican media strategist, said he believes such comments reflect the White House's "contrition spin . . . it's part of a highly calculated strategy to create a penance-lite."
Emphasizing how much Clinton is suffering for his transgressions at home, Murphy said, is a way of subtly underscoring Clinton's argument that his affair with Lewinsky was a private matter, even while satisfying a public hunger for punishment that stops short of impeachment or official reprimand. "Because their spin is that this is only a domestic matter, this is a way of showing he's paying a domestic price."
Leaving politics aside, however, there has been plenty of evidence in the past 11 days that the Lewinsky controversy is exacting a toll on the first family. So far, there have been no presidential golf outings, a stark contrast with his usual vacation routine. And, with just a couple of exceptions, the Clintons have been absent from the island's summer social swirl. In past years, they went out to parties and restaurants almost every night.
Even so, on the few occasions they have been out, the president and first lady have put on a happy face. She spoke about education policy at a dinner party at investment banker Steven Rattner's home last week. At a nearby table, the president, seated next to law professor Alan Dershowitz, talked about the Bible and science, with only passing references to his legal problems.
Back in Washington, aides were thrilled by newspaper photos of the first family, including daughter Chelsea, sailing with former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, who has sometimes been called "the most trusted man in America."
One friend and former adviser who also summers here said she doubted that anyone, either aides or island socializers, had a genuine sense of what is going on in the Clinton marriage. "Her instinct to help him has got to be conflicting with her instinct to kill him," said political consultant Mandy Grunwald. "What's truly happening will stay incredibly private."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company