By Dan Balz
Through 45 minutes, Romer spilled out his feelings about the events of the past week and the challenges ahead. He talked about the failure of Clinton's speech to clear the air, his determination not to let the investigation overwhelm the Democratic message this fall and his conviction that frank talk about the president's situation, not political spin, is the only safe course.
"We've got to get beyond this," he said. "But the speech" -- and there was an audible sigh as he continued -- "didn't quite do it. And it didn't because it sounded like too much explanation."
Those are words Romer knows will cause anxiety among some Clinton loyalists, and so with the next breath he sought to leave no doubt that he includes himself in that camp. "I've got to tell you, I care deeply about him," Romer said of Clinton. "He's a really good human being, he's got a lot of gifts, he's got a lot of great talent, and I just want to be a part of getting that . . . to work again."
Few Democrats are in as difficult a position as Romer, who must lead the defense of the president and rally his party for midterm elections that have become clouded by the scandal. He doesn't shrink from that responsibility, but he thinks that blind loyalty may lack credibility in the current environment.
At one point, toward the end of the interview, he said: "You can tell, I've been stirring in my soul and my gut to try to get a credible fix and approach and strategy of my own."
Romer conceded he was taken aback by the reaction to the president's speech, particularly on editorial pages across the country. And he said he wished there had been a more vigorous response from Democratic congressional leaders.
Whatever his first hopes were that Clinton's speech would move the scandal to the sidelines, they have disappeared. "I think our strategy has got to be to come back hard and say: 'Let's look really critically at the issues that are going to make a difference in your family's life,' " he said. "That's very difficult to do now."
Romer said the president must address the issue of his relationship with Lewinsky again, especially if there is doubt about his contriteness. "I don't know how that's done. . . . But you don't get this thing done in this country under those circumstances unless you say clearly, 'I made a very bad mistake. I need to admit that clearly, and I'm not going to let that happen again, and I want to work on these issues, and here's where we're going.'"
Romer understands better than most what Clinton may have been feeling when he gave his speech. This year, Romer, who is married, was forced to acknowledge a long-standing relationship with one of his aides.
As he watched the Aug. 17 speech, Romer said, Clinton's acknowledgment of wrongdoing and acceptance of responsibility encouraged him. It was the attack on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr that concerned him. "I thought I understood why he said it," Romer said. "He's very frustrated by this investigation. But in connecting it, it became, 'Here is why I did this. The-devil-made-me-do-it kind of thing,' rather than, 'You've got to understand what was in my gut as I was fighting this thing and delayed it for seven months.' "
Romer said he overruled staff members at the Democratic National Committee, who encouraged him not to repeat Clinton's admission of wrongdoing in post-speech interviews. "My instinct is you have to repeat those words, and the reason for it is you can't get to the healing unless you do the admission clearly. And I thought I was doing what the president was trying to do, too."
It was when he talked about issues such as education and health care and the changing economy that Romer was most animated -- and firmly convinced that Democrats have a package to sell to voters that has great appeal. But he acknowledged that getting a Democratic message out through the clamor of the Starr investigation represents "the greatest challenge we have right now."
In this climate, he said, some techniques will not work -- and he was especially critical of White House talking points produced last week for aides who might be asked whether they felt personally betrayed by Clinton's actions.
"I'm trying to be careful about how I say this, but that's not the way to do business," Romer said. "Sure, we all need to get our message out in an outline form, like why we're on the high ground on economics. But there's a point at which this profession of spinning is -- I mean, people turn off, and rightly so."
Romer said he is ready for a long struggle to force the debate back to issues. "It has the possibility of going for some time," he said of the investigation. "And the Democratic Party cannot let that be the only subject on the table. . . . We've got to say . . . here's the business of America and we've got to pay attention to it. It's a hard argument, but it's the only one I know how to make."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company