Alone at the Top The Clinton Presidency

March 29, 1995|By RICHARD REEVES

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- It is supposed to be lonely at the top, but Bill Clinton can't stand to be alone. He is also supposed to be a man nTC of a thousand friends -- the famous FOBs, ''Friends of Bill'' -- but it seems that he trusts only one person, his wife, and they don't always get along very well.

The president lives and works in the same building, and it has been a pretty wild place these past two years, edgy, disorganized, confused. Three hours before the president's third State of the Union message, his chief of staff, Leon Panetta, was briefing a few selected reporters on the speech, saying it would emphasize the problems of teen-age pregnancy and single parenting -- not knowing that the Clintons were locked away, alone together, changing most every word and adding 40 minutes of new ones.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, it turned out, had read it and thought it did not ''sound like Bill.'' Mr. Panetta looked like a fool, and so did the reporters -- but they'll get even. It happens all the time.

One of the stories Les Aspin took away from his year as secretary of defense involved Mr. Clinton agreeing to a Bosnia policy called ''Lift and Strike'' -- lifting the arms embargo on Muslim fighters and launching NATO air strikes at Serbian positions -- late on a Friday afternoon after weeks of wandering debate. On Monday morning, as recounted in Elizabeth Drew's book, ''On the Edge,'' Mr. Aspin was at the White House when the president came down from the living quarters holding a book, ''Balkan Ghosts'' by Robert Kaplan, a history of unending enmities. He said his wife had read it and he had looked at it, too -- and they thought that . . .

''Holy ---- !'' Mr. Aspin remembers thinking that morning. ''He's going south on 'Lift and Strike.' '' And he did, confusing the world once again.

Mrs. Clinton is the final adviser to the president. She is what Robert Kennedy was to his brother and then some. She is the last loyalist, the only one with no agenda other than the rise of Bill Clinton. She cannot be fired, ignored, impeached or defeated in election.

''Mrs. Clinton helped get her husband elected by pretending to be what she was not,'' said one New York Times editorial. Perhaps she played at being a homebody, but she is not pretending as wife and mother. What she is pretending to be is a politician. Her husband, even at his worst, has political instincts if not convictions. She has convictions, but the political instincts of a stone. ''It is a fundamental problem in the Clintons' White House,'' said one of the president's men, emphasizing the ''s'' in Clintons. ''She ain't got rhythm!''

Quite naturally, Mrs. Clinton is greatly resented by most of the president's staff -- some hate her, more try to avoid her -- because they find her a cold and arrogant judge of their best efforts and because of her effect on her husband's moods. The changing cast of hired hands around Bill Clinton still talk about the weeks at the end of 1993 when his confidence plummeted almost as quickly as his poll numbers.

He would come downstairs yelling and sulking, obviously distracted by the reaction upstairs to a long and nasty article in a conservative magazine, The American Spectator, stringing together allegations, guesses and rumors about his sex life back in Arkansas. At the White House staff Christmas party, the Clintons left after only five minutes. They were barely looking at each other.

And more than a few staffers dread the weekends the Clintons spend together at Camp David, leery and weary of the arrogance, the anger and the petty paranoia the two of them can feed in each other.

Except for Hillary and Vice President Gore, Mr. Clinton does not have a notable record of seeking out challenging contemporaries. No grown-ups, some would say. The FOBs -- friends of Bill -- are something of a myth. He knows hundreds or thousands of people, but the folks who make it to dinner at the White House or Camp David or Martha's Vineyard are interesting strangers. On the Vineyard a woman asked what was the best thing about being president, and he answered, ''I can meet anyone I want to -- and visit with them.''

He loves people, new people. Like John Kennedy, he prefers being at the center rather than the lonely top -- life is there to be lived, a race against boredom. It's hard for him to sit still, unless he's doing the talking. So the White House is a mess, with his secretary of state and national-security adviser reduced to pleading for one hour a week to discuss international affairs. Mr. Clinton finally said ''yes'' to that one, but scrawled on their last memo, ''When possible.''

Hillary Clinton, in the end, will be the only constant. Some of the bright young men of a new generation serving Mr. Clinton, the kids, see the president as a hostage to his wife -- turning his palms up, shrugging slightly in a ''What can I do?'' gesture. It happens when Whitewater or family finances is the subject. It happened when he seemed incapable of following his own political instincts to reach out to Congress for a salable compromise on her 13,000-page national health-insurance plan -- but it was her plan and there was nothing he would do without her.

There are, by one count, 1,044 people on the White House staff now, which means 1,044 people can say ''no.'' But only two can say ''yes'' -- Bill and Hillary.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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