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President Returning to an Altered, and Colder, Washington


President Clinton (Reuters)
By John F. Harris and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 6, 1998; Page A20

Facing the prospect that his presidency may be permanently disabled, President Clinton returned from Ireland late last night to a Washington environment dramatically different than the one he left for three weeks of vacation and foreign travel.

With his political support eroding, Clinton enters a crucial fall election season needing to prove that he can still govern effectively and not simply go through the motions as a grievously wounded leader. Some advisers both within the administration and outside have begun to question whether he can maintain his fabled ability to "compartmentalize" his life, insulating political troubles from his policy agenda.

People who have talked with Clinton in recent days or spoken with senior aides about how he is holding up said he seemed rattled by the fallout from his nationally televised confession on Aug. 17 and the damage he caused himself by his indiscretion and the deceitful way he responded to the controversy.

"His mood is as deeply sad as I've seen him," said an adviser who described Clinton as "quite disoriented" and "very stricken" by events of the past three weeks. At times on his foreign trip, he gave the appearance of a haunted man -- his face drawn, his voice subdued, his eyes weighted by bags.

While there was some doubt at first whether Clinton understood the peril he was in or the degree to which he caused his own troubles, "this has registered," the adviser said. The adviser said Clinton's despondency has been exacerbated by the fact that "Hillary has not forgiven him."

A Clinton adviser who talks with him regularly compared his current plight with the aftermath of the GOP sweep in the 1994 congressional elections: He became despondent, filled with doubts, not to mention suspicious and resentful of his staff, just as he apparently has bridled at their advice and criticism since the Monica S. Lewinsky speech. "I think he's setting this course a lot more on his own," one former senior administration official said.

By the end of the trip he seemed more visibly upbeat, even managing a round of golf in Ireland yesterday. Beginning tomorrow he will plunge into a robust schedule of events intended to promote his positions on education improvements, Social Security reform and the perilous state of the international economy.

Yet Clinton's predicament will cause intense scrutiny of his performance on these matters. His visits to Russia, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland last week demonstrated that it will be harder than ever to separate his problems from his policy -- to put them "in a box," as he likes to say. Unlike previous foreign missions this year that provided welcome respites from domestic problems, the Lewinsky matter hung over every stop.

One former senior administration official who remains close to colleagues in the White House said he believes Clinton has not been able to compartmentalize the Lewinsky scandal the way he could earlier controversies.

"Filegate, Travelgate, what did he know?" the former official said. "He always saw Whitewater as a political issue. He always had a psychological distance from his problems. This is closer to the bone." The Aug. 17 speech, the official added, illustrated how Clinton can no longer keep his personal problems removed from his political life: "One of the best communicators in the history of the presidency gave one of the worst speeches in the history of the presidency."

Former White House aide Bill Curry, who does not speak regularly with Clinton, said he recognizes a pattern in the events of the last three weeks, from the defiant first speech up to the more contrite statements issued in Dublin on Friday. "Rejecting personal responsibility is always his first instinct," Curry said. But his "second or third instinct" is usually remorse and self-reproach. "His inner voice is extraordinarily self-critical," he added.

"He is completely alone," said Curry. "He must feel a profound lack of control. . . . This kind of adversity is always unimagined in advance. To have won reelection to the presidency and then face the possibility of extinction is something he was not prepared for."

Clinton relied less on advisers during his overseas trip. As he prepared for his Moscow news conference with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, aides said they spent barely five minutes discussing how to respond to Lewinsky questions. Clinton told reporters at the event that he thought his original statement of regret had adequately addressed the matter. Two days later in Dublin, after Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) back home criticized the president for "immoral" behavior, Clinton encouraged little discussion as he told advisers how he would respond, then went before cameras to say for the first time that he was "very sorry" for his actions.

Clinton's mood evolved dramatically through the trip. In Russia, where Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared distant during joint events, the president seemed downbeat. His speech to Moscow university students was flat and generated lukewarm applause. His answers at the news conference with Yeltsin were soft and sullen.

When he arrived at Belfast to address leaders of Northern Ireland, he gave another speech that did little to rouse. But his spirits brightened visibly as the day wore on, and he met thousands of admiring Protestants and Catholics who universally hailed him as a savior for brokering the Good Friday peace accords.

By the time he reached Dublin, he finally evinced his more usual jocular confidence, ad-libbing jokes throughout a speech at a computer factory. He drank in the crowds at his final stop yesterday in southwestern Ireland, where he looked like a kid at Christmas as he reached out for a thousand hands on a rope line in Limerick and later made what aides insisted was a genuinely spontaneous stop in another small town to meet people. He ended the day with a round at the Ballybunion Golf Club, his first outing on a course since his Lewinsky confession.

White House officials traveling with him insisted that he was tired early in the trip, not dispirited. "We overscheduled him," said a top aide.

And foreign officials said they noticed no lack of focus in private meetings. "If he was distracted, he hides it very well," said Daniel Mulhall of the Irish Foreign Affairs Department. "Everywhere he was, you could see a real concentration. Distracted people don't ad-lib very well."

Still, while maintaining his ability to perform his duties remains unimpaired, Clinton aides acknowledged what they have been reluctant to concede until now -- the Lewinsky matter has distracted the president.

"He's incredibly focused on what he's doing at the time," said a senior administration official who accompanied him. "But it's impossible for him in some way not to be affected and it would be ridiculous to try to convince you otherwise."

If Clinton is losing his gift for insulating one problem from another, there are some supporters who think this may be not be such a bad thing. It is precisely this tendency to focus one thing at a time -- heedless of how words and actions in one setting have consequences in another -- that leads Clinton to commit reckless indiscretions, Curry said. "One of the few lessons of this is that compartmentalization is a bad idea," he said. "Your life is supposed to be in one drawer. . . . Compartmentalization was always an illusion."

It was in part a management technique used by Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles, and Leon E. Panetta before him, to keep the number of people who worry about scandal damage-control small and narrowly focused so that the rest of the White House can carry on as normal. But it is also a reflection of Clinton's psychology. He has shown repeatedly a capacity for concentration -- and, in the view of detractors, denial -- that allows him to stay focused on whatever problem or audience is before him, seemingly oblivious to crisis brewing elsewhere.

There are signs that his White House, though, is no longer operating on the principle. Bowles, who had stayed away from damage-control duties, in recent days joined the effort to buttress Democratic support on Capitol Hill. So has legislative liaison Lawrence Stein and his staff. And senior political aides such as Rahm Emanuel devote much of any typical day to strategizing how to survive the scandal.

The White House this fall will do what it has in past controversies -- move on with an aggressive schedule of policy and political events.

In a month that amounts to an issue-a-day buffet, Clinton will spend September talking about his education and health-care agenda and trying to draw distinctions between his approach and the GOP's on budget issues. White House aides had hoped for a dramatic showdown over the 13 appropriations bills but now believe that Republicans are wary of a showdown on the same territory where Clinton beat them before.

On Tuesday in Silver Spring, Clinton will tout school modernization, part of a coordinated campaign in which Vice President Gore, cabinet members and congressional Democrats will appear at about 80 sites around the country. On Wednesday, Clinton will hit the issue of ending social promotion in schools in Florida. Thursday he will highlight a new consumer protection regulation. Friday he hosts a religious breakfast -- where he may apologize yet again for Lewinsky. The days following this will include presidential pronouncements on youth drug use, military preparedness and entitlement fraud.

A senior White House adviser argued that it will be more possible to execute a policy schedule than many people realize, in part because Republican congressional leaders don't want to appear that they are focused on the Lewinsky scandal. "We aren't the only ones," this adviser said. "The Republican leadership has a vested interest in compartmentalizing this, too."

But the official acknowledged that such a strategy could only go so far. "We will have good days and bad days," he said.

Former White House lawyer Leonard Garment saw Richard M. Nixon's gift for compartmentalization up close, as that president pivoted from a morose conversation about the scandal to an effortless meeting with a foreign diplomat. But Garment recalled Nixon telling him after he left office that his thinking had been clouded by worry.

"He knew that for the last year his judgment was off," Garment said. "All his waking energy and all his dream time was distracted by questions of survival and it affected his judgment."

Baker reported from Limerick, Ireland.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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