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Clinton Keeps a Full Schedule

Clinton President Clinton answers reporters' questions Thursday before meeting with his national security team in the Oval Office. (Reuters)

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  • By John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, December 18, 1998; Page A39

    President Clinton's day began with a 7 a.m. telephone call from national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger providing news on the military conflict in Iraq.

    Twelve hours later he was under a heated tent on the South Lawn, presiding at a black-tie gala to benefit the Special Olympics, mixing with the likes of performers Eric Clapton and Whoopi Goldberg.

    In between, Clinton huddled with Vice President Gore and senior advisers in the private dining room off the Oval Office for an intense talk about Iraq and impeachment. Then there was an Oval Office exchange with reporters in which he jabbed GOP leaders by saying that no "serious person" could think his actions on Iraq would be affected by the impeachment debate.

    From there it was into a rapid succession of calls about Iraq with the leaders of Egypt, France, Jordan and Israel. Then there were calls to members of Congress, including a chat with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), one of the lawmakers about whom he had commented so acidly.

    And there were still more calls. Clinton tried to reach at least two Democratic House members, doing his part in a White House campaign to minimize party defections when the House votes on impeachment either today or Saturday. Vice President Gore and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton are also joining in the phone campaign, senior White House officials said.

    Wedged into this schedule was an 80-minute meeting with staff about the fiscal 2000 budget. Clinton, participants said, looked exhausted. But he followed his custom of peppering aides with questions about programs, serving up quips about the prowess with which Gore and national economic adviser Gene Sperling were angling for money for favored programs. And, on the eve of a House debate about whether Clinton deserves to be tried by the Senate and removed from office, he took time for a chat with a visiting friend, U.S. Ambassador to Canada Gordon D. Giffin.

    "Can it get any weirder than this?" one senior White House official asked of the spectacle. Six years into this presidency, no veteran of the Clinton White House would be rash enough to answer no.

    Even so, aides acknowledged yesterday was one of the most demanding and peculiar days of the Clinton presidency, as debates about war and the proper punishment for a presidential sex scandal merged into one, and early evening brought a confession from the incoming speaker of the House that he, too, had commited sexual indiscretions.

    Of Clinton's mood, aides said what they always say over years of controversy: that he was "focused on his job," and "undistracted."

    But if Clinton's psychology really is such that he can "compartmentalize" his problems, many aides said that their own emotions are not wired this way. All over the building, two emotions prevailed: astonishment and anger.

    "This is unbelievable," said one White House official, as an angry House debated whether it was appropriate to vote on impeachment even as military strikes were underway played on the television. "The Republicans are amazing."

    Advisers who fancied themselves students of how Washington worked confessed they had little comprehension of what was happening, and how Clinton would emerge from it all. "It's like all of a sudden gravity is working differently," said one senior White House official. "You're used to dropping the apple and it falls down. Now you drop it and it goes sideways."

    Significant chunks of Clinton's day were spent deliberating over just how to respond to the unusual circumstances. At 10 a.m., he summoned Gore, Berger, Chief of Staff John D. Podesta and senior advisers such as Douglas Sosnik and Paul Begala for a discussion of how he would handle questions from the reporters at an Oval Office "photo opportunity" at 10:45. The group, aides said, was able to anticipate the questions, some of them almost word for word.

    The most striking answer came when Clinton -- who invited reporters and photographers in for the beginning of a "bomb damage assessment" briefing from Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Henry H. Shelton -- was asked to respond to criticism suggesting he had ordered airstrikes as "a diversionary tactic to avoid an impeachment vote."

    "I don't think any serious person would believe that any president would do such a thing," Clinton said. "And I don't believe any reasonably astute person in Washington would believe that Secretary Cohen and General Shelton and the whole rest of the national security team would participate in such an action."

    These comments were mild compared to the scathing words routinely uttered this year about Clinton by critics angry over his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky and the lies he told about it. Even so, they were unusual for Clinton, who typically steers clear of personal disparagement of critics.

    His implication that Lott, with whom the White House had hoped to work on Social Security and other issues next year, is not a "serious person" suggests how the debates over impeachment and Clinton's motives in Iraq may be irreparably damaging relationships. Clinton's comments were merely a shade of the rage that some senior aides, speaking on a not-for-attribution basis, directed at Lott, House Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.), House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and other GOP leaders.

    One aide said there was a sense of history being written. Axioms -- that partisan criticism of a president during a military emergency should never happen, or that impeachment of a president must have bipartisan support -- were no longer valid.

    "Twenty years from now people may look back on this as the moment when all the old rules changed, and the new rules are that there are no rules," said a senior Clinton adviser. "My guess is that 20 years from now people will look back and say they can't believe we did this."


    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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