By John F. Harris and Dan Balz
For nearly seven months, President Clinton had no choice but to shut out all but a handful of lawyers as he gingerly weighed his options in the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation. In the last 72 hours, he at last began to let the world back in.
As he faced one of the most climactic and stressful days of his presidency, Clinton discussed feelings of rage and remorse with political aides who had not been able to speak candidly with him for months. To a select few, Clinton gave brief but informal confessions, foreshadowing the remarks he gave to the nation last night. The president spoke also with old childhood chums. A minister rushed back from a New York vacation to help the Clinton family summon strength for yesterday's ordeal.
One of the people to walk back through the White House's newly opened door was civil rights leader Jesse L. Jackson, who said he went to the residence Sunday night after first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton told him that 18-year-old Chelsea wanted to talk.
What followed was an evening of conversation and prayer, said Jackson, who described a mood of both resignation and resolve. "While humiliated and in pain, she's not shocked," Jackson said of Hillary Clinton, who helped write the president's speech to the nation. "She handles this as a strong wife and mother would. Her unconditional love [for her husband] and Chelsea's unconditional devotion that's huge."
With the president, Jackson discussed preparations for both yesterday's grand jury testimony and the remarkable speech to the nation that followed. "He was very focused," Jackson said. "He had met with the lawyers . . . but then he puts it in his own words, and he was in the final preparation of how he would internalize it, how he would communicate it."
"He has a sense of shame and regret," Jackson added, "but having said that, the question is how you handle faith in a storm."
That, of course, was the question not merely for Clinton but for all his White House a place filled with people who had professed belief in their boss, even as many nurtured private doubts about his flat denials of a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. As the day began yesterday, everyone knew that those doubts were about to be confirmed.
Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles, who ordinarily entreats White House workers to pay no attention to the scandal, began his morning staff meeting by acknowledging that this was no ordinary day. Everyone would be watching the boss, he acknowledged, but he urged them to remember that everyone was human. "He said, 'There isn't a person in this room who may not have said something or done something they'd like to take back,'‚" said one White House aide.
"It's easy to be there for someone when they're up, but it's the good ones who are there when you're down," Bowles told the gathering.
For the most part, White House staff members seemed to be following that advice. In the weeks and months before yesterday, many Clinton aides said privately they would be furious with him if it turned out he was misleading the public. The first reactions, though, typically were marked more by resignation than recrimination.
"We're basically all here holding the line," said one senior adviser. "This guy [Clinton] is not perfect, but this investigation is basically all politics. . . . Give me a break!"
For a time, it looked like Clinton might seek a truce with prosecutor Kenneth W. Starr. Over the weekend, some advisers had been urging toning down the rhetoric against the independent counsel. After several incarnations, though, the speech that Clinton ended up delivering was similar to the one he wrote out by hand on Sunday. It indelibly reflected what aides say is the intense sense of grievance he and Hillary Clinton feel toward Starr.
As Clinton gathered counsel for yesterday's confrontation, there were some notable ironies. The aide who took the lead in helping him edit the speech was Paul Begala. A political consultant who joined the White House staff last year, Begala is the adviser who has been most vocal, until just days ago, in proclaiming that he had no doubts about the president's denials. A devout Catholic, he spoke often with colleagues about his disapproval of adultery.
The presence of Jackson, likewise, was striking. Over the years, Clinton has had a famously turbulent relationship with the civil rights leader. In the 1992 campaign, a microphone captured Clinton exploding when he heard, erroneously, that the civil rights leader had endorsed a rival: "That's a dirty, double-crossing, back-stabbing thing to do." Even during Clinton's first term, Jackson complained that the president approached issues with "a wet finger in the wind."
But their relationship improved over time, and, after the Lewinsky controversy broke in January, Jackson became a informal spiritual adviser to the Clintons. He has a particularly good rapport with Chelsea, according to one family friend.
One person who rushed to Clinton's side was the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, the minister at Foundry United Methodist Church attended by the first family. He came back from New York to be with them.
"They're holding up quite well," he said. "They're a wonderful family. They both love him very much and he they. They're going to be okay."
David Leopoulos, a high school friend who called Clinton Sunday night to offer support, sensed a president coming painfully to terms with a distasteful task: "I don't know exactly what he's been through. . . . I can imagine when you're pushed to the edge of a cliff, you don't have much choice what you have to do."
Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company