By Peter Baker
With its own staff exhausted and depleted, the White House has begun recruiting a "kitchen cabinet" of former members of Congress to rally support for President Clinton among their onetime colleagues and help beat back a brewing impeachment drive.
The president's top advisers hope the former lawmakers can serve as ambassadors to rebuild frayed ties with a Democratic caucus that has long had an arms-length relationship with Clinton. In the month since the president admitted lying to the nation about his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, congressional Democrats have resisted repeated entreaties from the administration, distancing themselves even further from Clinton at a time he needs them the most.
"We have really not been highly successful in our efforts," a senior White House aide conceded. "They're not just jumping up and down to help us."
Initially Clinton aides envisioned tapping a single high-profile former lawmaker, such as ex-Senate majority leader George J. Mitchell (Maine), to work at the White House as a senior counselor in charge of the impeachment defense. That plan, however, has been shelved in favor of putting together a loosely formed group of less prominent former members who would work from outside the White House.
The effort remains in its early stages and its mission has not been fully determined. Only a few former members appear to have been contacted at this point, although others have called to volunteer their assistance. One official involved said it may take shape next week as the White House gets better organized.
"We'll have some informal working group," the official said. "How large and when and how will it work is still undetermined." But, he added, "We're doing pretty aggressive outreach."
Sources have said former representative Pat Williams (Mont.), who saw Clinton while they were in New York on Monday, has agreed to help. Former representative Butler C. Derrick (S.C.) said yesterday that he received a call this week from White House aide Lynn Cutler and agreed to pitch in. "It's in the best interest of the country for the president to remain in office," Derrick said.
Other names that have been floated by White House advisers in recent days include former Democratic representatives Michael D. Barnes (Md.), Marty A. Russo (Ill.), Dennis E. Eckart (Ohio), James R. Jones (Okla.), Michael A. Andrews (Tex.), Jim C. Slattery (Kan.) and Beryl F. Anthony Jr. (Ark.).
Most did not return telephone messages yesterday, but Andrews and Eckart said they had not been contacted and sounded unenthusiastic about the prospect. "Frankly, I wouldn't be inclined in any case," said Eckart, who practices law and called from a business trip in Denver. "I have a son in college. I'm enjoying what I do. . . . I am literally gone for the rest of the month."
The congressional effort is heavily focused on the House, where any impeachment inquiry would begin, and it comes even as the White House adds fresh legs to a staff weary from eight months of battling nonstop the threat posed by the Lewinsky investigation. Clinton this week hired State Department official Gregory Craig to serve as special counsel leading the anti-impeachment fight and persuaded two former White House lobbyists, Susan Brophy and Steve Ricchetti, to return. Former administration officials and lawyers, such as attorney Peter Kadzik, also are helping from the outside.
The White House needs the help. Press secretary Michael McCurry is leaving next month. Senior adviser Rahm Emanuel, whose wife just had a second child, is expected to follow soon afterward and Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles may be gone by the end of the year.
Those who are left are drained and worry that their credibility has been tarnished because they publicly defended Clinton when he was still denying his relationship. Presidential counselor Paul Begala, one of Clinton's most passionate defenders, has resisted going back on the television talk show circuit out of concern that his own past statements could be made the issue and would distract from his ability to help the president, according to some colleagues.
The former members of Congress, on the other hand, will be able to relate with House Democrats as trusted peers, Clinton advisers believe. "They have relationships with these guys . . . and are not as fixed to us so they might be able to have easier conversations with them than we might be able to," said one adviser. Another pointed out they not only have "enormous experience but also energy and perspective and credibility, which we've been lacking."
High-level delegations to the Hill led by deputy chief of staff John D. Podesta this week have been pummeled by Democrats, but some White House aides took heart yesterday from the uniform outrage expressed by Democrats after the GOP majority on the House Judiciary Committee decided to release the videotape of Clinton's grand jury testimony and reams of other evidence.
"House Republicans today accomplished something that we've tried to do for a month and failed," said a top Clinton adviser, "which is to unite House Democrats against impeachment."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company