GlOOM OVERTAKES THE WHITE HOUSE Brave words, stoic resignation ELECTION 1994

November 09, 1994|By Paul Richter | Paul Richter,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- On the last big election night, members of President Clinton's inner circle cheered, stomped their feet, kissed each other and delivered impassioned speeches about their plans to show Washington and the country how government could work.

They didn't do any of that last night.

The Clinton White House yesterday weathered election day 1994 with weary stoicism mingled with dread about a future that appeared likely to include Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The script called for everyone to pretend it was business-as-usual but it became harder and harder as the night wore on and the Democrats were losing both the House and the Senate.

A series of aides tried to salvage what they could from the dismal events. Voters were not totally rejecting their administration, they insisted, just sending another message demanding change in Washington -- a message that the White House received, loud and clear.

Mr. Clinton stayed publicly silent as he paced around the second floor of the residential quarters, watching the returns with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. The president took comfort where he could find it -- as in the victory of Virginia Sen. Charles S. Robb.

Mr. Clinton had gone out on a limb to campaign for Mr. Robb, and the victory over Republican Oliver L. North "might have been the race that he cared most about anywhere," ventured one aide.

But between the brave statements, other sentiments were clear.

"You can't help but take it personally," one aide said with a sigh. "You come to Washington with all these fantastic dreams of the things you're going to do. And you soon find out what the other side can do to close you out."

The administration had prepared for the election verdict in a customary fashion: It set up a war room.

Extra phones and television sets were brought to a basement office. Political aides milled around through the night, gathering intelligence and coordinating their explanations and keeping the boss regularly briefed.

The president seemed outwardly cheerful as he worked through a schedule of economic and foreign policy meetings, last-minute election interviews and meetings with White House volunteers and supporters.

But nothing could conceal his own preoccupation with the election results that would say so much about the future of his legislative agenda and his own prospects for re-election in 1996.

Since last week's trip to the Middle East, Mr. Clinton has done little to erase his sleep deficit -- but no one expected him to do much about it on election night.

Some people at the White House were already thinking ahead to the coming session of Congress, in which the administration's agenda is not likely to go far.

Victorious California Gov. Pete Wilson blasted away with charges that Mr. Clinton had "demeaned his office," not told the truth and "succumbed to the worst demons in his own nature."

But the White House was rejecting any claims that they were the central reason for the voters' judgment. Was this the Clinton White House's first report card?

"No," insisted White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers. "This is about a lot of local issues and congressional

candidates."

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