Clinton keeps focus despite distractions But aides see lapses in his concentration

March 19, 1998|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After dark on St. Patrick's Day, Bill and Hillary Clinton entered the East Room of the White House for Irish song, Irish readings and Irish oratory. The guests, who give the president much credit for the progress of peace talks in Northern Ireland, let out a hearty roar of approval.

"This is so good for the president," one top White House aide said as he surveyed the room full of Clinton admirers. "Just what the doctor ordered."

It is now Week Eight since Washington was rocked by news that the Whitewater independent counsel was investigating whether a former White House intern had sex with the president and was asked to lie about it. Scarcely a day has passed since without a new accusation, damaging news leak or counterpunch from the Clinton side.

Now, with the nation engaged in a spirited debate about the relevance of the president's sex life -- and his veracity about it -- many are wondering whether Clinton can focus on the duties of the presidency.

Interviews with dozens of aides and others who have been in contact with him in private, as well as scrutiny of recent Clinton public events, suggest that the answer is a qualified yes.

Clearly, Clinton remains fixed on his agenda, which ranges from expanding Medicare and child care programs to hammering out a tobacco settlement. He is also devoting time to a formidable set of foreign policy goals, such as preventing Yugoslavia from returning to ethnic warfare and helping forge peace in Northern Ireland.

Just as clearly, the swirling scandals appear to be taking their toll on Clinton. At recent public events, Clinton's uncanny memory for names has occasionally failed him, and he has walked out of rooms leaving hands unshaken. Democratic donors have said the president appeared distracted at party fund-raisers. Aides say Clinton resents spending his afternoon office time with lawyers. And visitors to the Oval Office say they have never seen him look so tired.

"The reality is that the president is continuing to do a lot of work on the ambitious agenda he outlined in the State of the Union address," said Mike McCurry, the president's spokesman. "But does this eat at him and anger him -- and does he show that anger sometimes? That's true, too. He's only human. But that's not the same as being preoccupied and obsessed. He's not walking around the halls of this place talking to the pictures."

'Punching bag'

Clinton has generally avoided making even veiled references to any strain he is feeling. One exception came last week while he was meeting with state attorneys general. Speaking nostalgically his brief tenure as attorney general of Arkansas, Clinton quipped, "Now I'm just a punching bag from time to time."

This was not how it was supposed to be.

At a time of robust economic prosperity, peace abroad and high satisfaction among voters, Clinton had planned to spend this point in his second term basking in his successes and fine-tuning a few more legislative victories on the way to shaping his legacy. Instead, he fumes over his news coverage, frets about the next move by an aggressive independent counsel and spends his precious daily afternoon office time consulting with criminal defense attorneys, aides say.

Clinton's Democratic allies were quick to denounce Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott for suggesting that the scandals were inhibiting Clinton's ability to get things done. But Democrats have made the same observation.

Clinton attorney Robert S. Bennett said in a legal motion that "all the dire consequences" he warned of, when he asked the Supreme Court not to let the Paula Corbin Jones lawsuit go forward, have come true.

Jack Quinn, a former White House counsel, made the same point on national television. And in an interview with The Sun, Rahm Emanuel, a top Clinton adviser, said he believed that if the Supreme Court justices had known how much time and attention would be required of Clinton, they never would have voted 9-0 to allow a lawsuit against a president to proceed while he is in office.

"They said this wouldn't consume the public debate," Emanuel said. "Well, it has."

Avoiding confrontations

In response, his advisers have largely kept Clinton away from the media, limited the likelihood that he will be confronted by unsympathetic Americans and announced an unusual number of foreign trips -- possibly in search of friendly audiences.

"You can see why," said one diplomat present for the St. Patrick's Day ceremony in the White House. "When he's at his lowest ebb, people re-energize him. It's the nature of the man."

During the round of parties, photo opportunities and negotiations surrounding St. Patrick's Day, Clinton seemed to members of the British and Irish delegations to be tired and weary. But, they added, he was very much immersed in the complexities of the Northern Ireland peace talks.

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