Clinton prepares for exit -- of sorts

Friends of president say they expect him to reach for spotlight

Other offices hold appeal

January 18, 2001|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Clinton may be saying "farewell" tonight as he addresses the nation for the last time from the Oval Office, thanking Americans for their support over the past eight years.

But, as he recently told the congregation at his church in Washington, he is not really saying goodbye.

"It's more like `auf wiedersehen' - until we meet again," says Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III, Clinton's longtime friend and his first White House chief of staff. "And the clear inference is, `We will meet again.' This is the end of Volume 1. But he's going to start a new life, and there are a lot more chapters to be written."

The president who vowed defiantly on the day he was impeached to work up to "the last hour of the last day of my term," has been squeezing every last presidential drop out of what remains of his administration. He is filling his final days with scores of executive orders, as well as farewell speeches and visits around the country.

And with his job-approval rating at a personal all-time high of 65 percent - higher than Ronald Reagan's as he ended his second term - his relative youth and vitality and an appetite for politics and policy that remains remarkably undiminished after eight turbulent years, there is no sign that Clinton's frenetic pace will slow once he leaves office.

On the contrary, Clinton closes his two-term presidency as the dominant figure in Democratic politics, one likely to be in fierce demand as a speaker, campaigner, fund-raiser, commentator and, even a de facto party leader.

"He believes he has an unusual opportunity that doesn't just end on Jan. 20th," says his friend of four decades, Carolyn Staley, an Arkansan who came to Washington with Clinton eight years ago to work in his administration. "His famous last words are: `I'll be around.' "

Indeed, even the president's televised address tonight will steal some of the spotlight from George W. Bush's pre-inaugural festivities that begin this afternoon.

"He is not going to fade into the historical woodwork," says Leon E. Panetta, another former Clinton chief of staff. "It's not his style."

The world that awaits Clinton on the other side of the White House gate - and the other side of noon Saturday - is unlike the quiet retirement life that has confronted any previous president.

Most immediately, Clinton faces possible indictment by independent counsel Robert Ray on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice related to the Monica Lewinsky episode. Ray, who has been presenting evidence to a federal grand jury, has said he will decide soon after Clinton leaves office whether to prosecute.

Similarly, an Arkansas state judge is to decide whether Clinton should lose his law license in the state for testifying falsely about the Lewinsky affair.

Perhaps more significantly, Clinton, at 54, will be the youngest ex-president since Theodore Roosevelt. While Roosevelt, after a breather of a few years, ran unsuccessfully for a third term, Clinton is barred by constitutional amendment from ever seeking the presidency again. He remains free, however, to run for other elective offices.

Instead, Clinton will be watching - from multimillion-dollar homes in Washington and New York and offices in both cities as well as in Little Rock - as his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, enters political life as the celebrity junior senator from New York, a newly minted politician who is thought to have presidential ambitions of her own.

Clinton, who with his wife recently bought a $2.87 million brick Colonial on Embassy Row, will be the first president since Woodrow Wilson to own a home in Washington after leaving the White House.

"It will be the first time a young former president is going to be around and available for comment," Panetta says. "Like everything else with the Clintons, they'll be breaking new ground."

Panetta says he can envision Clinton commenting frequently on the new administration, especially any missteps or moves to roll back Clinton initiatives.

"He'll try not to overplay the hand of a former president - he understands that's important," Panetta says. "But there will be moments when he won't be able to help himself."

Already, Clinton has made a few jabs at Bush, unable to contain his frustration over the outcome of the election - in particular, over the Supreme Court's decision to halt the Florida recount and what friends describe as his feeling that Bush did not win fairly.

Despite the new house in Washington, Clinton is expected to spend most of the next couple of years in New York at his $1.7 million home in Chappaqua, where Clinton will spend his first night as an ex-president, and at an office in Manhattan.

The former Arkansas governor also plans to re-establish his roots in Little Rock, where he will oversee the construction of his presidential library and study center, scheduled to be completed in two years, and work on his memoirs.

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