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The Capital's Wheels Keep Turning

Changing the subject? President Clinton discusses economics Monday before the Council on Foreign Relations. (Reuters)

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By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 1998; Page A1

Jim Leach, a Republican congressman from Iowa, held a hearing yesterday on the global economic crisis -- even though it had nothing to do with sex, the Starr report or the president's definition of perjury. Leach got some experts to testify. Most of the seats were empty and not many members of Congress showed up, but it wasn't too bad for a Monday morning on Capitol Hill.

Everyone, including Leach, has been reading the Starr report. It's a grave matter. But it's not the only thing happening on Planet Earth. "The work of governance must go on," Leach said in a hushed voice. "This is compartmentalization writ large."

The scandal hasn't shut down the capital, it has merely distracted it no end. The agencies continue to function, Congress continues to work on appropriations bills, nonprofit groups continue to push their agendas. This is always a frenzied time of year, the stupor of summer having passed.

"The federal government is a large organization that continues to run irrespective of Monica," White House press secretary Mike McCurry said yesterday morning. He noted that the president was giving a speech in New York City about the global economy. "It's an important speech, and it's one that someone back in the business pages will read about," he said, his overly pessimistic prediction understandable after eight months of relentless Lewinsky questions.

Among matters being discussed in Washington yesterday was the farm crisis. Which farm crisis? The one that is roiling Middle America. The existence of the farm crisis has gone largely unnoticed in a city not known for having a lot of wheat or corn under cultivation. In the heartland, prices are around $1.50 a bushel for corn and $2 for wheat -- numbers that are ominous to people who are clued in to the normal prices for corn and wheat.

Several senators rushed to the Senate floor yesterday with a plan to bring relief to farmers who need loans. A group of nonprofits held a news conference on Capitol Hill to urge immediate action.

"It's an emergency," said Leland Swenson, president of the National Farmers Union. There were about 15 reporters at the news conference, but no TV crews. Swenson's organization wants Congress to take off the caps on loan rates that were set in the 1996 farm bill -- the kind of unsexy policy initiative that nonetheless is an urgent matter in certain parts of the country.

Another topic of conversation yesterday: welfare-to-work programs. The concept may be temporarily off the front page, but the initiative goes on. The Welfare to Work Transportation Summit, held at Decatur House, focused on ways to help former welfare recipients get to and from their new jobs. A woman named Monique West told her own story, about how she went from public assistance to a good job in the Department of Transportation.

"I'm not embarrassed or ashamed about where I came from. I'm more interested in where I'm going," she said. She got a standing ovation -- a moment of cheer in a city that is otherwise mired in gloom and outrage.

What were they talking about at the Department of Justice? Alternative dispute resolution. Once again not the sexiest and most compelling of issues, but one that drew a couple of hundred executive branch officials into Justice's Great Hall. The concept behind ADR is that disputes, such as complaints of discrimination by employees, can be resolved without litigation or formal hearings. A pamphlet prepared for the event lists alternatives to litigation such as "conciliation, facilitation, mediation, factfinding, minitrials, arbitration, and use of ombuds, or any combination thereof."

This is exciting stuff for a Justice official named Peter Steenland.

"Government is going on, and we are doing important and interesting things," he said after Attorney General Janet Reno, fleeing, handed him off to a reporter.

At the White House, Deputy Chief of Staff John Podesta spent some time yesterday dealing with fallout from the Starr report, but he also worked on the budget, and even had a meeting about the relatively obscure topic of computer encryption. "Life goes on," he said.

As for President Clinton, the famous compartmentalizer, he has continued to go to meetings and conduct his business even though the Starr report depicts him as a conniving liar who groped an intern. "The president is remarkable about coming into a meeting and being focused," said one senior White House official who works on foreign policy matters.

Even as the Starr report hit the Internet on Friday, Clinton talked by phone to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He spoke to Russian President Boris Yeltsin on Saturday and French President Jacques Chirac on Sunday. On Saturday he met with his foreign policy team to discuss the situations in Iraq, Russia and the Middle East.

Yesterday he flew to New York City to give a speech. Just his departure from the White House offered a reminder that, scandal or not, the grand logistical operation of The Presidency continues to churn forward. The presidency is bigger than any one man, and goes on despite his personal failings.

For Clinton to get to New York, he had to fly on Air Force One, which was parked yesterday morning at Andrews Air Force Base. To get to Andrews he had to fly on his helicopter, Marine One. To get him onto Marine One required only that he walk out the back door of his house and across about 50 yards of the south lawn. But even so, it was a complicated procedure, involving dozens of people.

The departure is a carefully staged event. This is not just a photo opportunity, it's a ritual, a moment of honor befitting the stature of the office.

Before there is any sign of President Clinton, the South Portico is abuzz with activity. Guards appear everywhere. A fire truck rolls up. An ambulance parks at the nearest gate. The TV camera crews lay out their cables and set up their ladders. The gardeners clip the hedges, edge the lawn, mow. A distant droning grows louder. Just beyond the Washington Monument, the fat chopper moves slowly through the haze.

Marine One has a hurricane-force rotor. Leaves scatter, the glass trembles, people turn away and cover their ears. The chopper pilot brings the wheels of the craft precisely down onto three round targets that someone has put on the lawn.

Aides go to the chopper with garment bags.

Military men stand rigidly at attention.

The president appears. He offered a feeble wave at the cameras. He walks next to the first lady, but they do not hold hands. She looks straight ahead, unsmiling. A cold front moves through the heat of the morning.

And then they're in the helicopter, lifting off. It's a raging, violent moment. Marine One is roaring, the noise threatening to obliterate all thought.

Then it slowly moves away and disappears in the distance. Brown leaves, blown high, drift back to earth. Everyone can go back to work.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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