Clinton attempts to mend fences President striving to recapture trust of Democratic leaders

'Tough' Cabinet meeting

September 11, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Braced for what could be the most embarrassing day of his presidency as a report alleging impeachable offenses is made public, President Clinton struggled yesterday to make amends with fellow Democrats whose support will be vital to his political survival.

In yet another round of apologies and mea culpas, Clinton expressed regret for his actions in the Monica Lewinsky scandal to Senate Democrats in the morning and to his Cabinet in the late afternoon.

The later meeting was described by James Lee Witt, chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as a "very emotional, very tough" exchange as Clinton met for more than an hour with members of his Cabinet for the first time since just after the Lewinsky scandal broke.

During that Jan. 23 meeting at the White House, Clinton looked his Cabinet secretaries in the eyes and told them the allegations that he had a sexual relationship with the former White House intern were not true.

After hearing his denial, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Commerce Secretary William M. Daley and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala stood before a bank of TV cameras and emphatically declared that they believed the charges were completely false.

Yesterday, those three were conspicuously absent from the group of Cabinet members, largely second-stringers, who emerged from the meeting to speak with reporters. It was unclear whether they attended the meeting at all.

EPA Administrator Carol Browner said Clinton appeared "deeply sorry" for his actions and listened as the group expressed their concerns and their sorrow. "People accepted his apology," she said.

An emotional Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said the president "was hurting," but had urged them all to press ahead with the business of the country.

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman likened the meeting to a "candid encounter session." He said the president "is a man who is undergoing a great sense of metamorphosis and personal introspection and reflection right now, and knows that he has to convey that to the American people."

"Nobody was happy with the meeting," Glickman said. "Nobody's coming out of there with anything in their hearts except that the president has extreme anguish about this, and is going to work to ensure that his life is going to be lived in a way that this is not repeated, ever."

Asked if the Cabinet meeting was the most difficult apology session for Clinton since his secretaries had so publicly defended him in January based on his assurances, White House spokesman Mike McCurry said, "I think they've all been difficult, they've all been heartfelt, they've all been necessary, and they've all been well received."

Earlier yesterday, Clinton called 10 Democratic senators to the White House residence, much as he did with House Democrats on Wednesday, to privately apologize and ask for their support.

"It's fair to say we all accept his apology, and we need to go on from here," Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said after the meeting.

"We have expressed the hope that the president will continue to demonstrate his contrition to his family, to his friends and to the American people, and he's indicated a desire to do that."

Daschle said Clinton was asked in the meeting whether there would be any surprises in the report delivered to Congress this week by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

Democrats have been reluctant to express support for Clinton, partly for fear that the Starr report contains other damaging material not yet revealed.

"He was asked that and his answer was no, there were no surprises," the senator said.

At a presentation of science and technology awards to those who mentor minorities, women and disabled people in math, science and engineering, Clinton alluded to what has become a daily mantra of contrition.

Of his late arrival to the White House gathering, he said: "I was in an extended meeting with the senators from my own party, a part of this process I am going through of talking to people with whom I work and with whom I must work in your behalf, to ask for their understanding, their forgiveness and their commitment not to let the events of the moment in Washington deter us from doing the people's work here and building the future of this country."

The president's apologizing at every turn is a key component of an evolving White House strategy to try to contain the damage of the Lewinsky scandal, especially as the House prepares for a possible impeachment inquiry.

"The president has felt it's a necessary thing to do as part of building relationships and redeeming the trust of people here as well as around the country," a White House aide said. "It's a process; it's not accomplished in one moment."

Some White House aides expect Clinton to give his most emotional, contrite speech to date this morning when he speaks to religious leaders at the White House.

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