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Clinton Vows to Finish Term

Clinton Vice President Gore introduces President Clinton to congressional Democrats at the White House after Saturday's impeachment vote. (Robert Reeder — The Post)

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  • By John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, December 20, 1998; Page A1

    On the darkest day of six years in the White House, President Clinton yesterday walked on to the South Lawn and took his place before a loyal guard of House Democrats, the vice president and staff. Summoning every friend he could find, he tried to send a message loud enough for the nation to hear: He will never give in, he will never step down.

    "I want the American people to know today that I am still committed to working with people of good faith and good will of both parties to do what's best for our country, to bring our nation together, to lift our people up, to move us all forward together," Clinton declared, three hours after becoming the republic's second impeached president. "It's what I've tried to do for six years. It's what I intend to do for two more until the last hour of the last day of my term."

    It was the images, as much as the words, that the White House hoped would rally Americans to Clinton's side for the impending battle over his future. Flashing a wan smile, the president strode out of the Oval Office arm-in-arm with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton – the person wounded most directly by the illicit relationship that has put his presidency on a constitutional precipice. When he finished speaking, he shared an embrace with House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) – the leader of the congressional Democrats with whom Clinton has often had such fractious relations in the past.

    The physical gestures were intended to send the nation a reassuring message on the day Clinton received the most humiliating rebuke of his career: He is not alone.

    And the words, from both Clinton and Vice President Gore, were intended to convey an even more emphatic message: He will never resign.

    Thwarting any public expectations that the president might step down rather than continue the defiant defense he has maintained through a year of personal scandal is now the White House's top priority. On the most solemn of days, the White House sought to convey the optimism of a partisan pep rally as Clinton rattled off his unfinished agenda on Social Security, health care and education.

    But as Clinton and his loyalists sought to convey hope about the future, it was impossible to chase away the aura of gloom and defeat that hung over the presidency.

    The day, after all, was the culmination of 12 months in which the president was turned into political prey, in a desperate flight to elude his pursuers and cling to secrets that he feared could destroy him.

    Dec. 19, 1997: America did not know it yet, but the realization already was dawning on Clinton that his presidency was on the edge. The public Clinton was busy putting together a budget and preparing for a trip to Bosnia; the private Clinton knew that embarrassing facts were in danger of escaping. This was the very day that Monica S. Lewinsky received a subpoena to testify in the Paula Jones lawsuit.

    Dec. 19, 1998: A man who has dreamed of the presidency since he was a boy, who has had long conversations brooding with advisers about what his legacy will be, learned the answer. At 1:25 p.m., the House of Representatives tattooed the phrase "impeached" on Clinton's brow, an emblem he will wear through history. It was the one action that everyone who knows Clinton agreed will sting him.

    "This has been a heartbreaking experience for him," said Terrence McAuliffe, a 1996 campaign aide and a close friend of Clinton. "He is so proud of what he has done for the country. ... He believes that history books will recognize the good things he has done, but he also knows that as people read the legacy of Bill Clinton, this unfortunately will be one of things they read."

    But much else that has happened between these two dates remains a controversy, even among people closest to him.

    Has Clinton changed as a man? By his own testimony, and that of several friends, the Lewinsky scandal has altered Clinton fundamentally – forced him to confront self-destructive behavior, to let go of the anger he feels toward his political enemies and accept personal responsibility.

    It was a sign of Clinton's strained credibility that many Republicans, and even some people on his own team, seemed to doubt the transformation. Would a person who has embraced accountability, they said, cling to so many implausible denials about his relationship with Lewinsky and his testimony about it?

    "Is he sorry? Yes, I think he's sorry that he got caught," said one former senior administration official who remains close to many at the Clinton White House. "But is he a different man? I don't think a person changes the way they are after so many years."

    The stubbornness with which Clinton avoided telling the truth about his relationship with Lewinsky over the past year has led some on his team over recent days to ask a remorseful question: Could this day have been avoided?

    A year of damage control revealed Clinton – a man so bold and even heedless in some contexts – as self-defeatingly cautious when it came to his own defense.

    At numerous junctures, Clinton dismissed the advice of aides to make a dramatic move that, while risky in the short term, might have brought closure to this controversy before it reached this point.

    He could have settled the Jones lawsuit once he knew that her lawyers were aware of Lewinsky, but did not. He could have admitted his relationship with Lewinsky last January and asked the country for forgiveness, but instead delivered a finger-wagging lie that vastly compounded his difficulties later. He could have acknowledged this lie earlier than last August. By this time, once the nation knew that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr possessed a dress with physical evidence of his sexual relationship with Lewinsky, Clinton and his spokesman never could convince people that he was genuinely contrite about what he did.

    This fixation with Clinton's true emotions has been one of the distinctive features of this controversy. By all rights, say loyalists, Clinton's level of remorse is hardly relevant to whether his offenses merit impeachment under the Constitution. But in fact it became central to the debate.

    Many moderate Republicans who were uncertain about impeachment said they ultimately voted for it in part because Clinton seemed still to be denying responsibility for his actions.

    "He fully knows the dimensions of the pain he caused" both his family and the country, said former White House senior adviser Rahm Emanuel. But yesterday's vote, Emanuel asserted, was not about Clinton's sins or whether he is repentant about them. "This is about who gets to write the first paragraph of the first chapter of the history book," he said.

    Deeply steeped in the history of his predecessors, Clinton is a man who in the 1996 campaign used to while away hours with his then-political consultant, Dick Morris, talking about where he would rank among the presidents. On various occasions, Clinton has said it is his desire to follow the path of such historic 20th-century leaders as Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

    More than one Clinton aide in recent weeks has noted the irony: Clinton's troubles were rooted in some of the same sexual indiscretions that, it is now known, were common in the Kennedy White House. But his fate is starting to more closely resemble that of President Richard M. Nixon, the darkest villain of all for Clinton's generation of Democrats.

    Gore also alluded to Clinton's concern with how he will be remembered. Yesterday's House vote, the vice president said, "does a great disservice to a man I believe will be regarded in the history books as one of our greatest presidents. There is no doubt in my mind that the verdict of history will undo the unworthy judgment rendered a short while ago in the United States Capitol."

    At the moment that judgment was delivered, Clinton was in the Oval Office with the Rev. Tony Campolo, one of the spiritual advisers who have been counseling Clinton since he admitted his adultery with Lewinsky last summer. "I think he's tired. He's very upbeat and confident that things will work out, but he's very tired," Campolo said as he left the White House driveway.

    After the session with Campolo ended, two senior aides – White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta and Douglas Sosnik – arrived to give Clinton the expected news that he had lost the first impeachment vote. In his private dining room, the group watched the remaining three votes. Gore was there for the final vote on the fourth article.

    All day Clinton and his staff arranged for him to be surrounded by people, concluding tonight with a White House party for major Democratic supporters. There were some 75 people crammed in the Oval Office this morning to hear the president deliver his weekly radio address – an update on the ongoing campaign of U.S.-led airstrikes against Iraq. The group included old friends from Arkansas. It also included Tweed Roosevelt, the great grandson of TR, and Garrett Jones, a student at Pinecrest Elementary School in Silver Spring. Jones, according to a White House aide, had hoped to meet Clinton at a recent appearance at the school but could not because his father had died.

    Immediately after his South Lawn appearance, the president went into the Roosevelt Room to meet with his national security team on Iraq. He then spoke to the nation on his decision to end the military attack.

    Clinton advisers familiar with his defense said yesterday the next few weeks will determine if a compromise can be reached in the Senate to censure Clinton and prevent a trial. If that effort fails, however, they said Clinton's lawyers will begin preparing for an aggressive defense that could last weeks or longer. One goal, according to an adviser, is to prove Clinton's belief that there was collusion by his foes to expose and even entrap him because of his personal lapses over Lewinsky.

    Clinton hinted at some of the grievance he feels in the South Lawn remarks. "We must stop the politics of personal destruction," he said. "We must get rid of the poisonous venom of excessive partisanship, obsessive animosity and uncontrolled anger."

    This conviction by Clinton that he has been victimized by outside forces has led Morris, who was his closest adviser for nearly two decades, to question how much Clinton has changed. "The hallmark of change is a willingness to overcome anger and to penetrate denial," said Morris, ousted from Clinton's 1996 campaign after revelations that he was consorting with a prostitute.

    But most Clinton loyalists were of the mind that the impeachment spectacle taught the opposite lesson: The president and first lady were right in their long-held conviction that opponents are out to destroy them.

    "He understood sooner than a lot of people about the right-wing agenda," said one senior White House official. "He underestimated that less than a lot of people around him."

    Given the vehemence of the opposition, some advisers believe Clinton was shrewd to at first deny his affair with Lewinsky, giving the public time to gradually adjust to the realization that the allegations were probably true before hearing it from Clinton.

    Even as Clinton fights to remain in office, the fact that he excites such antagonism among his opponents remains one of the large mysteries of his presidency. The disdain, said New Orleans University historian Douglas Brinkley, is in the end less political than cultural. The indiscretions in Clinton's personal life, his Vietnam-era draft history, his embrace of gay rights – all these things make him "for many conservatives a symbol of what's wrong with America," said Brinkley. "It's a culture war about what America should look like."

    And yesterday made clear that Clinton's own indiscipline gave his foes at least one lasting victory – one that may allow a truce in a year of scandal. "I don't think there's ever been an American politician humiliated the way Bill Clinton has been," the historian said. "Republicans may take a more moderate approach once they've embroidered the 'I' on his chest."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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