Faced with scandal, Clinton sticks to business President tries to focus on issues polling shows people care most about

September 18, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As his lawyers and aides grappled with the growing turmoil over his presidency dominating Capitol Hill, President Clinton proceeded from a health care speech to Democratic fund-raisers yesterday, trying to portray a sense of business as usual.

Part of Clinton's strategy for surviving the sex scandal that has prompted calls that he resign or face impeachment is focusing instead on issues that White House polling has shown the American people care most about.

But the president faces an uphill battle in trying to drown out the scandal-related cacophony with his policy agenda and his desire to "demonstrate every day," as he said Wednesday, that he still has the moral authority to lead the nation.

"What I would like you to think about is not me," Clinton said yesterday at a small luncheon fund-raiser for Democratic candidates in Cincinnati. "Hillary and I, we're doing fine. We're working on what we need to be working on, and we're fine."

Clinton railed against a "Washington obsessed with itself," and told the group of contributors that they should focus on the rest of the people in the country.

"There is a country out there," Clinton said. "This is a democracy. We're all hired hands. I'm here today to help these people running for Congress because the choice really is between partisanship and progress. It is not about me. It is about the people of this country."

Earlier, Clinton spoke to a friendly union audience, making no mention of the Monica Lewinsky matter or his personal troubles.

He renewed his call to Congress to pass a Patients Bill of Rights, vowed to veto any bill that spends the budget surplus on tax cuts before Social Security reform, and highlighted his program for increased education funding.

"We need to make this a season of doing things for you," Clinton told the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers' legislative convention in Washington, "not idleness and not indulgence, but doing things for you."

The president is trying to make the case that congressional preoccupation with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on the Lewinsky scandal has all but brought regular business on Capitol Hill to a standstill.

But as Clinton tried to change the topic to his agenda and raise money for Democrats, the House Judiciary Committee dominated headlines with its heated debate over release of Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony about his relationship with Lewinsky. White House aides braced for what they feared could be further humiliation and damage to Clinton with the release of his Aug. 17 testimony, and possibly thousands more pages from Starr.

And a furor erupted over a news story about an extramarital affair that Illinois Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Republican Judiciary Committee chairman, had three decades ago, with Republicans accusing the White House of planting the story and the White House vehemently denying it.

White House aides said that even though the president's policy speeches are often overshadowed by scandal news, his strategy is to press on with a full schedule -- as if with blinders on.

"You continue to do it," one administration official said. "Sometimes it's covered [by the press]. Sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's pressed through a prism of other problems. You just do it anyway."

The official said Clinton is "eager" to focus on non-scandal

issues, perhaps as a "therapeutic" exercise.

And the official said that White House staff members -- many of whom are extremely "disheartened" by this year's turn of events -- believe Clinton owes it to them to continue pressing an agenda.

"He damn well owes it to us to stay on the job," the aide said. "That's why most of us haven't resigned. He's good at the job."

Another aide said that a change in strategy this week will keep Clinton's lawyers working behind the scenes with Republican lawyers on Capitol Hill. Last weekend, lawyers for Clinton dominated the TV talk shows and drew criticism for what Democrats and Republicans alike viewed as legalistic hair-splitting in their defense of Clinton's sworn statements about his relationship with Lewinsky.

"I don't think you'll see them out leading the public debate," the White House aide said.

White House Communications Director Ann Lewis says Clinton's business-as-usual approach "is not easy, but helps differentiate him from the partisan wrangling in Congress."

But the debate over Clinton's misconduct in the Lewinsky scandal and his fate is not confined to Capitol Hill. In Cincinnati, Clinton was greeted by an editorial in the local newspaper calling on him to resign, billboards along his motorcade route picturing him with Lewinsky to advertise a radio station, and about two dozen officials and political leaders, including the Democratic mayor, who had had qualms in the past week about being seen with the president.

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