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Clinton Camp Is Splintered on Next Step

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White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles. (AP)

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Aides Worry About Effect of Clinton's Speech (Washington Post, Aug. 19)

Even Critics Are Cautious in Wake of President's Speech (Washington Post, Aug. 19)


By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 1998; Page A01

While the first family remained cloistered on a Martha's Vineyard vacation, President Clinton's senior aides and informal political advisers yesterday weighed options for counteracting the intense backlash his Monday night address to the nation caused in Washington.

Key Clinton aides and others who consult closely with the White House were split among people who believe the president must speak out further on the Monica S. Lewinsky controversy and those who believe he can safely brush off criticism that his speech was insufficiently contrite. The first group believes Clinton should say more, possibly in a televised interview, while others say the safest course is to stay mum and count on the generosity of a public that is weary of discussion about the president's sex life and wants no more details on the controversy.

Advisers described the discussions as in an early stage, and said no decision about whether Clinton should speak out further is due for several days or possibly weeks. More imminently, Clinton is still weighing whether to cut into his vacation next week for public appearances. One idea would have him go to Woods Hole, Mass., on the mainland just across from the Vineyard, to talk about climate change. Clinton has always overcome personal and political controversy in the past by returning to work on popular issues, but some aides said yesterday they fear that the current clamor may drown out all efforts to change the subject.

The White House, according to several sources familiar with its deliberations, is vexed by a political contradiction. The public opinion polls that have always played a central role in plotting Clinton strategy show strong majorities tolerant of Clinton's extramarital relationship with the former White House intern and accepting of the president's acknowledgment that out of embarrassment he had misled them about it. But several advisers acknowledged being shaken by what they called "elite opinion" – ranging from legislators in both parties to newspaper editorial writers – that was considerably more hostile than they anticipated.

Even as the White House tried to coordinate a public strategy, it was riven by private dissension. Tensions that first emerged in the opening days of the Lewinsky controversy last January between Clinton's political and legal teams – largely over the lawyers' tight control of information – have risen anew in recent days.

White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles, according to sources, yesterday morning urged White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff to recognize that the Lewinsky investigation is moving to a new stage and that greater coordination between lawyers and political advisers is required. That led to a second meeting yesterday afternoon that included Ruff, deputy chief of staff John Podesta, Clinton private attorney David E. Kendall and other attorneys to reinforce the message.

Numerous White House political aides, and outside advisers familiar with their thinking, believe that Clinton's lawyers have been not merely unforthcoming but actively misleading. Lawyers had assured other White House officials last winter that Clinton's defense did not rely on a distinction between "sexual relations" and oral sex; this week they learned that the defense was exactly this.

"We're going to take the White House back from the outside lawyers," one Clinton strategist said.

Lawyers have also assured White House officials that Clinton in his Monday grand jury testimony refused to answer only those questions seeking what he considered intrusive levels of detail about sexual encounters with Lewinsky, and that they had not been caught off-guard by any unexpected lines of inquiry. But some Clinton advisers said they are no longer certain that what the lawyers tell them is true.

With the White House increasingly focused on a likely political showdown once independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr sends a report to Congress, Podesta summoned a group of sympathetic Democratic operatives to his office yesterday for what participants described as a wide-ranging discussion of how Clinton should proceed.

Among those in attendance were Donald A. Baer, Clinton's communications director until last year; Mark Penn, who conducts polls for the White House; Jody Powell, White House press secretary in the Carter administration; and several Washington attorneys with experience in political investigations, including Stanley Brand and Peter Kadzik.

Hanging over this discussion and others at the White House, according to participants, was a common understanding that a speech that was intended to lead to a cease-fire in the Lewinsky matter had instead provoked new hostility.

"The mood is very angry that he blew it," said one adviser. Clinton emerged so angry from his Monday session with Starr that he gave in to his most combative instincts, this adviser said. "He was trapped. He was in the corner. He couldn't resist."

While many Clinton supporters said they understand this anger and even share it, giving voice to it in a nationally televised address was unwise. They believe Clinton's attack on Starr undermines future White House efforts to dismiss Starr's upcoming report to Congress as a partisan document. They also said that by forcing other White House officials to defend his earlier misstatements, the credibility of the White House spin operation has been damaged at a critical moment.

But Baer asserted that the effectiveness of White House spin is less important than that Clinton demonstrate to audiences outside Washington that he is undeterred by scandal and is focusing on public business. "There is no way he can ever win the battle of the Washington pundits," Baer said. "The important thing is to show the country he is working on issues they care about."

Powell echoed this, but noted that Clinton cannot completely discount the negative opinions in Washington, especially among Democrats who usually support the president. "A lot of folks were disappointed," said Powell, who also noted that Clinton will have a harder time getting his issues message out when the news media are focused on scandal. "You folks in the press have a tendency to create the story of a 'paralyzed presidency,' " Powell said.

And, even as the country eagerly wants closure to a controversy Americans believe is being blown out of proportion, Powell said it is not yet clear how this can be achieved, given the inevitability of Starr's report and the congressional debate it will spur. "The Constitution doesn't give us the option of docking a president without pay for two months" and then moving on, he said.

Media consultant Bill Knapp, a Clinton adviser who was not at Podesta's meeting, argued that Washington opinions will bend to the opinion of the American public. "This thing is over," he said, adding that Clinton's general acknowledgment of a relationship with Lewinsky removes any interest in Starr's report. "There's not a person in America that wants to know the details."

If Republicans choose to pursue sexual controversy further, Knapp said, "they are going to kill themselves. It's the third rail of politics and they're dancing on it with wet feet."


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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