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Clinton 'Vacation' Scarcely Up to Par

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 31, 1998; Page A04

EDGARTOWN, Mass., Aug. 30—It was, by all accounts, a most peculiar sojourn for President Clinton. Thirteen days, ending today, on scenic Martha's Vineyard with not a swing of the golf club, minimal hob-nobbing with the island socialites and admittedly chilly relations with his wife.

But if it was not an altogether fun summer vacation for the president, the self-imposed exile may have produced some political benefits. Alone in a small guest house here, Clinton sketched in longhand what may be the outlines of a plan to rejuvenate his ailing presidency.

As he himself described it in an emotional discussion with civil rights leaders Friday, Clinton is grappling with a way to make amends with his family, his aides, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and indeed, the nation.

"All of you know, I'm having to become quite an expert in this business of asking for forgiveness," he said in a speech he wrote himself. "It gets a little easier the more you do it."

In 20 minutes, with little more than his scribbled notes to guide him, Clinton shed some light on how he hopes to regain his personal and political footing.

He will not apologize, but he will share his pain. He will not divulge the details of his extramarital affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, but he concedes he is paying the price of "self-inflicted wounds." And he will continue to count on a healthy economy, the prestige of foreign travel and loyal friends such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and black leaders to buoy him.

The effort begins in earnest Monday with a visit to Herndon Elementary School in Virginia before he heads off to Russia for a summit with President Boris Yeltsin, one of the few politicians who appears to be in more immediate jeopardy than Clinton these days.

In private, the president has been trying to mend relations with lawmakers who may ultimately control his fate if Starr issues a critical report to Congress, as is widely expected. Some said they were pleased Clinton seemed more cognizant of his foibles last week than when he addressed the Lewinsky matter in a televised speech Aug. 17.

In a limousine ride Thursday, Clinton told Sen. John F. Kerry and Rep. Jim McGovern, both Massachusetts Democrats, that the timing of the Aug. 17 address, just hours after he testified before the Lewinsky grand jury, "was probably not the best," McGovern said today on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"We both did urge him to say more and to do so when he felt it was appropriate to make any more statements on that issue," said McGovern, who hosted the president in Worcester that day.

But critics view much of the past two weeks as classic Clintonian spin -- from the whispered tales about familial hostility to the missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan, derided as a real-life version of the movie "Wag the Dog."

The skeptics blanch when Clinton compares himself to South African President Nelson Mandela, the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a man revered for his bravery in the civil rights movement. Clinton's critics speculate that he is attempting to generate sympathy before any more bad news comes out.

Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) said Clinton's semi-apology from the Vineyard sounded like another lie from a man who has already deceived the public. "The president is putting himself first and the country second," Cox said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

The family vacation to this island off the coast of Massachusetts also highlighted some of the difficulties still ahead for the man once known as the Comeback Kid.

Although Friday's speech was warmly received, a new Boston Globe poll of Massachusetts voters found 45 percent believe Clinton's ability to do his job has been damaged by the Lewinsky scandal. That notion was reiterated today by several lawmakers.

Most significantly, Clinton's most powerful ally to date, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, has been noticeably absent. She refused to attend his two public appearances in Massachusetts and remained at their borrowed beach house when he flew to Washington to oversee the missile strikes.

In the past, she has been the unwavering wife, from their 1992 appearance on CBS's "60 Minutes" when he acknowledged causing pain in the marriage to blaming the Lewinsky scandal on political enemies.

Few details of the well-publicized marital "healing" have been released. Aides said when they visited one day last week, the Clintons were in the kitchen cooking fajitas. But at least twice on this trip, a restless Clinton has summoned his card-playing aides for a post-midnight round of hearts.

And as the family departed today, Hillary Clinton hurriedly said goodbye to airport well-wishers and boarded the plane alone, leaving the president to climb the stairs with only his dog Buddy at his side.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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