Prone to Pique By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 21, 1998; Page A1 The meeting with President Clinton and his staff was going fine until somebody told Clinton he was scheduled for a public appearance in New Mexico. That's when the storm clouds rolled in.
"He was furious that we were going to New Mexico and not Arizona," said one senior White House official, who recalled Clinton seething because his instructions for an Arizona visit apparently had been ignored.
To the advisers gathered in the Cabinet Room for that scheduling meeting a few months ago, the display of presidential pique was sudden, intense and unremarkable. The sunny, optimistic face that Clinton usually presents to the world the face that reflects the dominant side of his personality obscures darker but equally authentic moments of frustration and grievance to which his inner circle long ago became accustomed.
Today, millions of people will see Clinton's anger, though these glimpses will only hint at the eruptions to which he is sometimes prone. The videotape of his Aug. 17 grand jury testimony, according to various accounts by people who have seen it, shows a president forcibly containing his resentment of interrogators.
Even friends who share Clinton's outrage at independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and are familiar with the occasional bursts of temper say they have been astonished in recent weeks to learn the degree to which anger became a hidden motif of his presidency. Clinton spoke of this bitterness, and his efforts to overcome it, at a Cabinet meeting last week.
"He said he'd been angry just about every day he'd been president," said one participant.
Another participant said Clinton described being "profoundly angry" over a 4½-year period, a time that roughly corresponds to the appointment in 1994 of a special prosecutor to investigate the Whitewater land dealings.
The defensiveness the public will witness on the videotape, Clinton aides and friends said, is a reasonable reaction of a man having to answer embarrassing questions about a personal matter that he believes should never have become the subject of a criminal probe.
At times he is coldly formal, calling prosecutors "sir," the same term he uses when a reporter's question especially irks him. At times he is accusatory, deriding what he calls the overzealous tactics prosecutors used in pursuing his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky.
Clinton has mentioned his anger in a series of public apologies for his involvement with Lewinsky. "The anger, the resentment, the bitterness, the desire for recrimination against people you believe have wronged you, they harden the heart and deaden the spirit, and lead to self-inflicted wounds," Clinton told a church full of supporters last month in Oak Bluffs, Mass.
Yet even as Clinton tries to surrender his resentments, several people who have spoken with him and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in recent days say both retain a deep and abiding sense of grievance about what they regard as a fundamentally unfair ordeal.
"There's anger, there's no question about it," said one friend who has spoken with both Clintons. "There's anger that this guy [Starr] has been on a four-year vendetta against him."
Friends and advisers said it is understandable, though not necessarily constructive, that the Clintons view themselves as victims. From the president's vantage point, Starr is a man on a mission of personal destruction: When he could find no presidential wrongdoing in Whitewater, he turned his attention to sex. Along the way, he dragged many of Clinton's friends through legal ordeals and forced the first family to amass legal bills that now total some $8 million, about $4.5 million of it unpaid.
Hillary Clinton is especially worried about that debt, some friends said. In addition, both have been appalled by what they view as unbalanced news coverage of the Lewinsky controversy.
Clinton tries, though not always successfully, to avoid reading the papers these days because "it only makes him mad," said one senior White House official. In Clinton's view, news organizations have catered to Starr without holding him accountable for prosecutorial failures and abuses. In addition, one friend said, Clinton is bitter over the widespread repetition by news organizations of lurid sections in Starr's report that Clinton maintains are simply untrue. Above all, various advisers said, he is bothered by what he regards as the disproportionate nature of the controversy, which seems to equate his sexual transgressions with scandals such as Watergate.
"He knows he made a mistake, he knows he screwed up," said one friend. "But he doesn't believe he should be impeached for it."
The anger Clinton nurses toward Starr is of a different kind than the day-to-day irritations that cause him to blow his stack over the scheduling of a trip, a poorly drafted speech or the arrival of limousines in his motorcade when he was expecting Chevy Suburbans (as happened during a visit to Yellowstone National Park in 1995). But if there is a link between the two, it is the rage that sweeps over Clinton when he feels events and decisions being shaped beyond his control.
In his book, "Behind the Oval Office," former Clinton consultant Dick Morris described a scene in which advisers debated options as though the president were incidental. "I mean, I'm the president, so I get a vote, don't I? Don't I?" Clinton snapped.
Though he holds the most powerful political job on the planet, Clinton sometimes feels similarly powerless in the face of Starr's investigation. In the wake of the Lewinsky controversy going public, he told White House aide Sidney Blumenthal that he felt "surrounded by an oppressive force," according to Blumenthal's grand jury testimony.
Knowing Clinton's tendency toward indignation, aides often hurl rude questions toward him during rehearsals for news conferences, encouraging him to vent in private rather than before cameras. Vice President Gore sometimes teases Clinton, telling him to get mad and stop being so soft in his answers.
Clinton's fury can also be prompted by a sense that his privacy has been invaded. Despite having the usual politician's hunger for the spotlight, when he first ran for president, aides said, he had naive notions of what to expect. One reporter who covered him in 1992 recalled Clinton launching into a tirade, his face florid with anger, when the reporter hovered too close while the candidate paid the cashier at a McDonald's. The day after he won the election, he exploded at a young aide for allowing reporters to watch him tee off at a local country club.
It is all the more astonishing, then, that a man with such an acute sense of personal space finds the most intimate details of his sexual appetites and activities the subject of discussion, debate and irreverent chortling around the world.
Yet aides describe a president who reached an epiphany about the self-destructive nature of anger after the poor reviews that followed his Aug. 17 speech to the nation, in which he acknowledged an affair with Lewinsky but lashed out at Starr. "He understands that this anger is not good for him personally, psychologically or spiritually," said one White House aide. "He's trying to feed it and to take steps to get beyond it."
Aides also cautioned against overstating the nature of Clinton's temper. He flares over trivial matters far less now than he did during the first days of his presidency, and when he does his ire is usually transient. The eruptions are more likely to occur when he is in a grumpy mood in the morning and are usually directed toward those he likes and trusts, not the person who committed the offense. "If he displays that side to you," said one aide, "you know you've made it to a certain level of intimacy."
White House counselor Douglas B. Sosnik said the lowest he witnessed Clinton was in the period after the 1994 elections, not during the Lewinsky controversy. "He was very frustrated at the time that it had been difficult to communicate to the American public what he'd been doing on their behalf," Sosnik said.
Ultimately, current and longtime friends said, Clinton's sour moments are a way to vent frustration, not a reflection of someone who harbors grudges or tries to plot revenge.
David Matthews, an Arkansas friend who helped during Clinton's unsuccessful race for Congress in 1974, said even then the candidate was prone to occasional "hissy fits."
"What appears to be anger is mostly just frustration," Matthews said. "In the end, he always sees the best in people, and he's always willing to forgive."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company