Shalala's Remarks Irk President
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 11, 1998; Page A01
At an emotional meeting with his Cabinet, President Clinton yesterday had a sharp exchange with his secretary of health and human services over her suggestion that the president believed enlightened policies could compensate for his failure to provide moral leadership, according to several participants in the meeting.
Clinton invited the Cabinet to his private residence to apologize for the personal behavior that has led him into the worst crisis of his political career. Several members described a meeting that had echoes of an encounter session. With tears in his eyes at some points, Clinton pleaded for forgiveness and implored Cabinet members to give him their support.
Many volunteered their backing, and talked in starkly personal terms both about their feelings that the president had badly failed on a personal level but that he was on the path to redemption. But Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala offered what two participants described as an unexpectedly "harsh" assessment.
The participants said Shalala rejected what she took as Clinton's implication that policies and programs were more important than whether he provided moral leadership.
"And then she said something like, 'I can't believe that is what you're telling us, that is what you believe, that you don't have an obligation to provide moral leadership,'‚" one participant recalled.
"She said something like 'I don't care about the lying, but I'm appalled at the behavior.' And frankly, he [Clinton] whacked her, let her have it," this source said. The president told Shalala that if her logic had prevailed in 1960, Richard M. Nixon would have been elected president instead of John F. Kennedy, the source said. After that, no other Cabinet member had anything critical to say, the participant added.
Shalala declined to give any interviews after the session.
Two other participants, while recalling the same exchange, described it in somewhat softer tones. After first hearing Shalala, they said, Clinton responded calmly, saying he agreed that being a good person was just as important as being a good president.
But they said what seemed to Clinton like Shalala's moralizing tone clearly rankled him, since he returned to her much later in the meeting. "He was saying that public character really matters too," said one participant.
Nearly all the 20 or so Cabinet-level officials who attended the session spoke, either directly in the meeting or in private comments with Clinton that extended for at least 20 minutes after the meeting broke up.
The comments reflected the sharply different personal styles of the participants. Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater and Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman both quoted from Scripture, as did Clinton.
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt talked about going to confession as a child, according to one participant. Vice President Gore said he saw in the president someone who had made errors but now recognized that receiving "forgiveness means surrendering your anger."
Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin spoke in private with the same pragmatic style that is his public trademark. "You screwed up, but we all screw up sometimes," Rubin said, according to one participant, who said the secretary then praised Clinton's mastery of economic issues.
Other participants who attended said Clinton bared himself before his Cabinet in a personal and somber way that they had never seen.
"It was not like any other Cabinet meeting, for sure," said Slater.
The president said he was struck by the irony that as a young governor he was often described as a "good guy but ineffective," but that in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal it often has been said that he is an effective president but a bad person.
"He said, 'It's more important to be a good person than a good president, and I'm going to spend the rest of my life trying to atone for this,'‚" one participant said.
Clinton told the group that he has been profoundly angry for about 4½ years, one participant said. He did not explain this time frame. The first independent counsel to investigate Whitewater matters was appointed just over 4½ years ago. Clinton's comment about his anger was part of a "convoluted" opening speech asking forgiveness, the participant said.
The last time the full Cabinet met was Jan. 23, two days after the first reports appeared alleging a sexual relationship between Clinton and former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky. At that meeting, Clinton told the Cabinet the allegations were untrue.
As they stood in the rain after that January session, several Cabinet members, led by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, issued a vigorous defense of the president. "I believe that the allegations are completely untrue," Albright said then. Shalala, Commerce Secretary William Daley and Education Secretary Richard W. Riley all endorsed and repeated Albright's views. Of those four, only Albright made any comment on yesterday's Cabinet meeting, and she did so through her spokesman:
"Secretary Albright believes it was a very moving meeting. She indicated that it was a sad and difficult time for all concerned. She believes that the president's actions were wrong, as were his statements misleading the American people and the Cabinet. But she has accepted the president's apology to the Cabinet."
Andrew M. Cuomo, the secretary of housing and urban development, described yesterday's meeting as "an interesting experience." He called it "warm, supportive, introspective and honest." Clinton "was just very sincere in saying that he feels very badly, no excuses, no justifications, it was a mistake. He said it will not happen again." But Cuomo said Clinton made no specific reference to the last Cabinet meeting when he denied any improper relationship with Lewinsky.
Cuomo was one of many Cabinet members who used the meeting to praise the president. Cuomo said he told Clinton he had done "phenomenal things for the country and had the potential to do more phenomenal things."
Labor Secretary Herman described the meeting as "somber and serious . . . it was at times painful and it was very personal." Like Slater she talked in almost biblical terms as she described Clinton's comments and contrition.
"I've never seen him bare his soul this way, but not only bare his soul, but struggle so publicly in front of us," she said.
She said the meeting was "very affirming" for the Cabinet members to hear one another talk of the need to continue their work. "The general stumbles but the battle still goes on," she said.
Rubin told NBC News that Clinton said he has made terrible mistakes, that he was deeply regretful. "It was a very personal and, I think, very moving discussion on his part. ..."
Rubin said he felt no personal sense of betrayal. "I don't and I never have. I've worked with him now for almost six years. I think he's done an outstanding job as president. . . . I think that he is serving this country and has served this country and will continue to serve this country extremely well."
Several participants quoted Clinton as comparing the Cabinet to his family, saying he owed them almost as much in the way of an apology. Slater quoted him as saying he still "has to work with his own family" in the aftermath of his confession, after lying to them about his relations with Lewinsky.
Clinton made no comments about possible impeachment proceedings or resigning from the presidency, several participants said.
Staff writers Bradley Graham, George Hager, Judith Havemann, Thomas W. Lippman, Frank Swoboda and Barbara Vobejda contributed to this report.
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