After seven turbulent years, President Clinton has reached a certain, coveted point in his presidency. It is that time at last when he feels free to say whatever he likes.
A succession of late-night speeches and impromptu remarks in recent weeks have offered a glimpse into the mind of a man in the dusk of his presidency. In private, say associates, Clinton is looser, more reflective and more at ease than they have seen him; in public, he is less guarded than ever about sharing opinions and moods.
There are self-deprecating jokes, colored by what some friends believe is a touch of genuine envy, about how Vice President Gore and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton now command the spotlight. There are quick, hot flashes of grievance at those -- reporters, conservative agitators and even the FBI -- he believes have treated him unfairly.
And there are searching philosophical excursions, occurring more frequently than in the past. The president in recent weeks has reflected at least twice on the foul moods he says sometimes overtake him. He has offered wistful recollections about his presidency as "our time here draws to a close," as he told a White House gathering Tuesday evening. And he has offered ruminations on human nature itself.
"Some days I wake up on the wrong side of the bed, in a foul humor," Clinton told a gay rights group in New York earlier this month. "And it has occurred to me really that every one of us has this little scale inside, you know. On one side there's the light forces, and the other side there's the dark forces in our psyche and our makeup and the way we look at the world. And every day we wake up and the scale is a little bit tilted one way or the other. And life is a big struggle to try to keep things in proper balance.
"You don't want to have so much light that you're just a fool for whatever comes along," Clinton continued. "But if the scale tips dark even a little bit, things turn badly for people and those with whom they come in contact."
Clinton said this explains why some people let fear of others curdle into hatred. But some people close to Clinton said his New York remarks were an echo of themes he has discussed as he examines the personal behavior that led to last year's sex scandal, as well as the anger he feels toward political opponents he believes stoop to illegitimate means to thwart him.
A former close Clinton adviser, who still talks with him occasionally and asked not to be named, said that for several months after the impeachment trial until just recently, an air of sadness hung over Clinton. But a regular Clinton confidant, Democratic fund-raiser and businessman Terence McAuliffe, said the president lately is the opposite of morose -- excited about his future, eager to see that Gore and the first lady win elections of their own.
"I've never seen him in a better frame of mind," said McAuliffe. "He's been in great spirits and he's got lots of fight."
McAuliffe agrees there is a less guarded aspect to Clinton these days. "As he gets closer to the end of his term, he's more reflective about the past seven years, and he feels freer to talk about the experiences of the past seven years."
And so a politician who has spent a lifetime trying to stay on message these days sometimes leaves aides cringing with the candor, and occasional carelessness, of his words.
At a South Lawn picnic Clinton hosted recently for several hundred Washington reporters, a reporter for Investors Daily asked Clinton -- somewhat impertinently, in the context of a social event -- about holding a news conference to answer questions about alleged Chinese attempts to buy influence with Democratic campaign contributions. Rather than brushing off the remark, witnesses said, Clinton jolted. "Yeah, the FBI wants you to write about that rather than write about Waco," he shot back.
That this comment would come from Clinton's lips is remarkable. Resentments run deep among many close Clinton advisers toward FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, whom many on Clinton's team regard as an opportunist. The Clinton team believes that the FBI's position -- that it is above politics -- is a guise that allows it to avoid accountability. Several current and former White House aides were entertained when Congress grilled Freeh over FBI actions during the Waco incident and its aftermath. While his aides took pains not to utter such sentiments for attribution, Clinton put the forbidden topic right on the table.
Clinton's grievances also flared at a media briefing recently when a reporter asked why some well-heeled friends, like former treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin, declined to help the first family finance a post-White House residence in New York. "I think some people didn't want to do it because they know they live in a world where -- they live in the Larry Klayman political press world," said Clinton, referring to the conservative activist founder of Judicial Watch who has filed several lawsuits against the Clinton White House, "in which what's true is not as important as whether you can be dragged around, you have to spend a lot of money you don't have or you'd rather not spend for reasons that have nothing to do with anything that's real."
White House aides squirmed, believing it best for the president not to even acknowledge he knew Klayman's name. But Clinton then told reporters: "You're all smiling because you think, `I wonder if the president made a mistake by committing the truth in that last remark.' "
Despite these jabs, Clinton in recent days has been open around reporters. One day after an expansive hour-long news conference, he showed up at an off-the-record "happy hour" press secretary Joseph Lockhart arranged in the White House briefing room. He held forth for more than a half hour, brushing off aides who told him it was time to go, until Oval Office assistant Nancy Hernreich arrived and tugged his arm.
In other settings, say people who have spoken with him in recent weeks, Clinton is voluble on another subject -- the 2000 elections. He talks about them all the time, associates say, absorbed in particular by three campaigns: Hillary Clinton's New York Senate race, Gore's Democratic nomination fight and Texas Gov. George W. Bush's GOP campaign.
Clinton, according to three people who have talked politics with him recently, is galled that Bush is ahead in polls and has been able to project a public image of moderation, despite what Clinton believes are hard-core conservative positions. He is disdainful, too, of what he regards as the softball news coverage of Bush, comparing it with the harsh scrutiny he received and attributing the difference to an elitist bias in the media.
After earlier this year being bewildered by Gore's lackluster performance, associates say Clinton is encouraged by Gore's more energetic style in recent weeks. But Clinton remains concerned about what he believes is a troubled campaign organization that is not helping Gore convey what he stands for.
While supportive of Gore's need to strike his own identity, Clinton associates say he is frustrated that neither Gore nor other Democrats are making what he feels would be a potent political case: how much better off the country is than it was before his administration took over. And so it has fallen to Clinton himself, at nearly every appearance before Democrats, to tout the nation's economic performance and improving crime and welfare statistics. "Well, after six years, it's not an argument anymore," he told Democrats in New York, in a line he repeats often. "There is now evidence."
As Clinton departs more often these days from prepared scripts in favor of informal, improvisational remarks, White House aides sometimes turn anxious. One worry is the off-key remark, such as when Clinton likened the opposing sides in Northern Ireland to brawling drunks (a remark for which he later apologized); just last week, in denouncing hate crimes, he described one recent murder as a "two-fer," since the victim was both Filipino and a federal worker.
What concerns some advisers most is that Clinton's musings might sound like a valedictory, since both he and they assert that there is much he still intends to accomplish, as evidenced by his willingness this week to continue battling Congress over spending priorities. But Clinton's own words convey an autumnal air. There are regular references to his gray hair. "I wouldn't take anything for the last seven years, warts and all," he told Democrats in California two weeks ago. To another group: "I wish I could have done better, but we've done pretty well." And to another: "If my life ended tomorrow, I'd be way ahead."
Some friends say they are encouraged by Clinton's mood. One of his ministers, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, who has counseled Clinton since last year's scandal, said he believes Clinton "is a little more at peace," and "in some respects is more focused than he's ever been, since the personal issues that sometimes got in the way are not in the way."
And a childhood friend, Carolyn Staley, who saw Clinton recently, said she is not surprised that Clinton would joke about turning over the spotlight to others "since we usually joke about the things that bother us."
"I think he will miss being president," she said, adding, "He is at the age when people find wisdom. . . . I think he is asking himself who he is when he is at his best."