Conflict in Yugoslavia taking a personal toll on Clinton

Friends, aides perceive determination, but his critics question his will

April 18, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- David Leopoulos was watching his boyhood buddy Bill Clinton on television as the president fought back sleep and rubbed his eyes, greeting guests at a state dinner for Premier Zhu Rongji of China. Startled at the signs of weariness, Leopoulos booked a ticket from Little Rock to Washington to perk up a friend in need.

Another childhood friend, Philip Jamison, dropped by the White House on Friday to discuss the Hot Springs High School Class of 1964's 35th reunion July 31 with the president's social secretary -- and to tell Clinton aides that the president is doing the right thing in the Balkans. That may be especially hard for Jamison: His daughter, a naval officer, is close to the conflict because she works at the U.S. Embassy in Macedonia.

The greatest foreign policy crisis of Clinton's administration is taking a personal toll on the president, who is struggling with long hours, little sleep, conflicting political demands and possibly the toughest decisions of his presidency.

At public appearances last week, Clinton looked tired, squinting and rubbing his eyes. White House aides are downplaying Clinton's public displays of fatigue, saying his lack of sleep has been exacerbated by springtime allergies.

"I have seen him looking tired," acknowledged senior policy adviser Ann Lewis. "But it's not like every day I'm looking up at him and saying, `Wow.' "

Still, his friends say they are noticing it.

"He's been unusually tired," said Carolyn Staley, a childhood friend. "He's been less sunny-spirited. This truly does seem to be a time of personal toll and gravity."

Leopoulos, who has known Clinton since they were about 8 years old, said: "I just want to be there right now. That's what he needs. This has got to be the most gut-wrenching thing he's ever done in his life."

`Wouldn't want to cross him'

Nevertheless, some friends and aides insist that the president's resolve seems to have strengthened as the NATO air campaign has stretched on. Clinton has displayed private fits of pique over the carping and second-guessing that have dogged NATO's campaign, especially over the assertion that NATO's bombing is partly to blame for the atrocities and wholesale evictions of the Kosovar Albanians. But such anger, friends say, has only steeled the president's determination to press on.

"He's a really nice guy, fun to be with, but I tell you I wouldn't want to cross him," said Jamison, a Defense Department policy specialist who has known Clinton since fifth grade. "Bill Clinton's not afraid to pull the trigger."

The president's position on military and foreign policy has always been suspect in some quarters, especially in the military itself.

Clinton's evasion of service in Vietnam still raises hackles among veterans groups. And his administration's early debacles over gays in the military and a deadly firefight in Somalia got the president off to a shaky start with the men and women in uniform.

Asked last week how he would defend his moral fitness to command if questioned by an Air Force pilot, the president simply pulled rank.

"I don't have to address it to the Air Force pilot," Clinton told a convention of newspaper editors. "I am his commander in chief, and they swore an oath to the Constitution, and they have performed admirably."

Some understanding

Though Clinton has not served in the military, some of his friends say he does have an understanding of what is at risk. Four of his high school classmates died in Vietnam. A housemate from his college days in Georgetown University, Tom Campbell, has a son in the Marines in Macedonia.

Still, skeptics say, they do not yet know which Bill Clinton will emerge under pressure: the president who bucked public opinion and sent the military into Haiti in 1994 or the politician who buckled under fire, pulling the military out of its disastrous engagement in Somalia and agreeing to a compromise on homosexual military service that satisfied neither side.

Jack Moseley, editor of the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith, Ark., expressed that ambivalence as he recalled the night he spent with a young Governor Clinton in 1980. Hundreds of Cuban boat people were rioting at Fort Chaffee, an Army base near the Oklahoma line where 19,000 of them had been placed, and Clinton called an emergency meeting with the commanding general of the base.

He also maintained constant contact with the Carter White House and the Pentagon, persuading the Carter administration to send the Army to quell the violence, even though Defense Department officials had insisted they had no right to keep the Cubans in the compound.

"His lack of military service was not an issue in dealing with the Cubans," Moseley recalled. "I heard him issue very clear orders to the state and local authorities to do whatever it took to protect the citizens of the state. That was the first real leadership I ever saw in Bill Clinton."

Private property was damaged in the confrontation at Fort Chaffee and the federal government paid reparations.

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