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Clinton Looks Beyond Scandal to Future

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  • By John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, March 4, 1999; Page A01

    President Clinton once again implored leaders in both parties yesterday to turn their sights on the future, even as millions of Americans were focused anew on the lurid details of the president's past.

    Yet Clinton, who survived a year of scandal with his famed gift for "compartmentalizing," has apparently succeeded in remaking the capital in his own image.

    While the aftershocks of the impeachment drama continue to rumble almost daily from new allegations of a sexual assault to last night's nationally televised interview with Monica S. Lewinsky there is scant evidence that these are hindering Clinton's ability to seize control of Washington's policy agenda, according to a variety of lawmakers, administration officials and political analysts.

    Instead, many of the other critical actors in this debate have made plain in recent days that they are now following the president's lead in keeping controversy about private behavior walled off from public business. This new group of compartmentalizers includes Republicans who weeks ago wanted Clinton out of office as well as senior members of his own administration, some of whom say they are deeply troubled by the latest questions about Clinton but have chosen to put misgivings aside.

    Three weeks after winning acquittal in his impeachment trial, Clinton is governing in a paradoxical political climate. He is surrounded by people who view him suspiciously, yet remains by far the dominant actor on Washington's stage.

    Clinton, according to several people who have spoken with him in recent days, is by turns angry and resigned over this paradox, aware that his survival in the impeachment ordeal is not going to produce anything like a clean break in stories about his personal conduct. He has complained how the "unwelcome vapor trail" following him in recent days, as one aide described it, shows that news organizations and some conservative opponents are determined to prevent a return to a pre-Lewinsky state of normalcy.

    But Clinton's pessimism about the motives of his adversaries is interwoven with optimism: He believes that Republicans, divided on issues and unpopular in the wake of impeachment, have no choice but to work with him on his terms.

    "Yes there are hard feelings, but at the end of the day people are nothing else if not pragmatic," said one senior White House official. "Politics works by self-interest . . . and that means there is an incentive to work together."

    Clinton laid down his terms for working together yesterday at a rally-style event with House and Senate Democrats at the Library of Congress. Warning about the risks of "excessive partisanship," Clinton boasted that Democrats are more unified than ever on issues and challenged Republicans to join him in passing new national standards for education, to devote nearly two-thirds of the budget surplus to Social Security and to agree that preserving Medicare requires a large new infusion of federal money.

    "I think they [Republicans] want to get some things done and the president is banking on it," said Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala, who added that she has been struck in recent days by how "cordial" and "professional" once-combative Republicans have been toward her at appropriations hearings on Capitol Hill.

    As Republicans look past scandal toward policy, Shalala acknowledged that she is putting aside her own uncertainties about Clinton's behavior.

    Asked about Juanita Broaddrick's recent allegations that Clinton assaulted her 21 years ago in an Arkansas hotel room, Shalala said she has reached no conclusion about whether she believes Broaddrick or the terse denial issued by Clinton's lawyer and said she doesn't need to in order to do her job.

    "I take all of this very seriously," Shalala said of Broaddrick's allegations, adding that "I do not compartmentalize" by making separate judgments about personal conduct and public performance. At the same time, Shalala said, "I'm both a patriot and a professional; I serve the nation and the president."

    This conviction, she said, allows her to pursue what she considers important issues on Clinton's behalf without knowing for sure what to believe about his past.

    Among a sampling of administration officials, both in the White House and in agencies, Shalala was the only one willing to be quoted by name. Yet other interviews underscore the degree to which the Lewinsky scandal has undercut Clinton's credibility even with people who work for him. Given assurances of anonymity, many people who serve Clinton said they long ago reconciled themselves to the fact that there are parts of their leader's private life about which they could never be certain.

    One veteran aide likened working for Clinton to being a Catholic who supports abortion rights: One simply tolerates contradictions. "Bill Clinton has got a problem," this official said. "If he weren't president he would be in counseling. ... But I don't think because he's got a sickness, that corrupts everything about him. ... He is a great president."

    Of the recent Broaddrick allegation, another senior administration official said, "I think you have to be troubled by it; she seems very credible." On the other hand, this official, who has worked both in the White House and in a senior position at an outside agency, added: "The question is: What do you do with it? And why now? Why did she wait 20 years?"

    Many other aides in recent days said they find Broaddrick's allegations of forcible sexual assault implausible. Her story is far different, Clinton loyalists note, from the story of Paula Jones, who claimed that Clinton did not force the issue when she turned down a crude sexual advance. Some aides pointed to recent rumors suggesting that Clinton had fathered an illegitimate child with a prostitute. That story turned out to be false, according to the tabloid newspaper that first raised the issue. The lesson, these Clinton loyalists say, is that even if they cannot fully trust Clinton's denials, they know that many of the most sensational allegations about him fall flat. "You have to live with some uncertainty," said one. "You just ignore it and do your job."

    The public has apparently made a similar calculation. Polls by news organizations have offered differing results on whether most people who saw Broaddrick on television find her credible. But the surveys are uniform in showing that most people 66 percent in a Gallup poll conducted for USA Today and CNN don't want the controversy pursued.

    Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), one of Clinton's closest Senate confidants, said the public's appetite is gone for scandal and is whetted for a more prominent discussion of education and health care policy.

    "Enough is enough," he said after yesterday's Democratic unity rally. "For most people, there's a certain fatigue that sets in on these matters."

    Democratic Party supporters apparently feel the same way. Clinton's appearance at a fund-raiser in Newark last night prompted them to donate $2.15 million to Sen. Robert G. Torricelli's 2002 reelection campaign. Torricelli, who said "it will be remembered as perhaps the most successful single evening in Democratic fund-raising we've ever had," was one of the president's most staunch defenders during his Senate impeachment trial. As Clinton put it: "He has been my friend in good times and bad, and I will never forget it."

    Kennedy said Clinton's ability to drive the Washington debate is helped by the fact that "Republicans don't know where they are" on most issues.

    They also seem uncertain of where they are on the subject of Clinton. After a meeting at the White House last week, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) refused to say whether he trusts Clinton. But he hastened to say that he can work constructively with the president.

    Meanwhile, after resisting Clinton's plan on saving Social Security, Republicans now have adopted his stand that 62 percent of the budget surplus be saved for Social Security, while they are divided about the wisdom of pursuing an across-the-board tax cut.

    Lyn Ragsdale, a University of Arizona political scientist, said the GOP's tepid stance toward Clinton shows its leaders "can read polls as well as anyone." Having defied polls showing their impeachment effort was unpopular, she surmised, they are wary of defying Clinton's popular stand on saving the surplus. "They can't ignore polls twice in a row . . . without risking real problems" in the 2000 elections, she said.

    Staff writer Liz Leyden in Newark contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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