The day after terrorists blew up two U.S. embassies in East Africa, Sandy Berger, President Clinton's national security adviser, held a meeting at the White House to discuss the American response to the bombings. The secretaries of state and defense, along with the attorney general and the heads of the CIA and the FBI, were there. Absent from the table, however, was Bill Clinton. After a morning engagement with his personal lawyer, the president took the rest of the day off and played golf.
Clinton's failure to show up to an important national-security meeting was taken by many in Washington as confirmation that he has become utterly distracted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and no doubt he has. Facing the threat of impeachment and in a perpetual huddle with his lawyers, Clinton doesn't spend much time these days running the White House, much less the country. But that doesn't mean he has been idle. In fact, he has never been busier.
In addition to speaking at an astounding number of campaign-season fund-raisers and taking frequent trips out of the country, Clinton has talked up a new public-policy initiative nearly every day for the past several months. Virtually none of them means much, but the sheer volume is impressive. Consider: In a single seven-day period in early July, the president gave public lectures on HMO reform, handgun safety, teen drug use, the year 2000 computer problem, and the importance of restoring historic sites. He also participated in a race-relations "dialogue" on PBS and celebrated the 200th birthday of the Marine Corps band.
The following week, judging from White House press releases, was even more productive. Between July 20 and 26, Clinton promoted "discipline and safety in schools," improved "the quality of nursing homes," announced "new grants to fight crime," signed the IRS Reform Act, and took on "agriculture issues during a radio press conference." On Friday he gave a speech to the Boys Nation class of 1998, and by Monday he was hard at work again, chatting about the entitlement mess at a forum on Social Security reform.
The first half of August was, if possible, even more frenetic. Over a span of less than two weeks, the president hosted events on welfare reform, job retraining, global warming, health care, information technology, and gun control. On August 7, he appeared in the Rose Garden to sign the Work Force Investment Act, possibly the most important piece of legislation, Clinton explained, since the Credit Union Membership Access Act, which he had signed earlier that morning. Four days later, Clinton traveled to San Bruno, Calif., to assure citizens there that his administration is doing its best to keep their municipal reservoir clean -- not an easy task, he reminded the crowd, given the "disturbing trend" among Republicans to oppose clean drinking water.
An ordinary president trapped in a humiliating, possibly felonious, sex scandal might hesitate before needlessly antagonizing his political opponents. Clinton, by contrast, has become belligerently partisan since January. In the past few weeks, he has threatened to veto seven of the 13 congressional appropriations bills, challenging the Republican leadership to another government shutdown. In speeches, his rhetoric frequently becomes comically overheated. At an event in Maryland earlier this month, Clinton warned a crowd of high-school students that the Republican Congress wants to eliminate their summer jobs. "And," said the president gravely, "that's not all the Republicans plan to do away with." According to Clinton, the heartless GOP also wants to rid America of safe, affordable daycare centers; hopes for a return to "exploitative" child labor; and, "at a time when our nation is experiencing extremely severe weather," can hardly wait to deny heat to elderly poor people during the winter months.
Rough words from a practitioner of Third Way politics, though not rough enough to add heft to his policy proposals. Clinton's second-term agenda has turned out to be largely insignificant, and many congressional Democrats are mad about it. Every Friday morning, senior members of the White House staff -- Rahm Emanuel, Paul Begala, and Ann Lewis among them -- meet in Rep. Dick Gephardt's office to talk strategy, coordinate events, and develop the following week's political message. For Democratic members of Congress facing a midterm election in November, coming up with a message is not an idle concern. "To get over the cacophony of Monica," says one Hill staffer who participates in the meetings, "we're going to need to have a couple of very high-profile positions on issues like HMOs, education, and Social Security." Yet despite endless events at the White House, the staffer says, "little if anything we talk about gets translated into anything real." One thing nobody talks about is the scandal: "We operate the meetings as if the Lewinsky thing doesn't exist, like it never happened."
The White House's refusal to acknowledge the effect of the scandal comes as no surprise to former presidential adviser Dick Morris, who describes Clinton as "one great big denial mechanism." The president, says Morris, "exists in a cocoon of his own, where this stuff is never talked about, never referred to. And he flees to that cocoon -- the frenetic fund-raising, the 18-hour-a-day campaigning, the speeches every day -- to get away from the real world." According to Morris, Clinton demands that those around him participate in the charade, and thereby strikes an unspoken deal: "As long as we all make believe it's not there, we can go on. I'll act like I'm president, you act like you're staff, and we'll all have a wonderful time."
Some Clinton loyalists don't seem to mind playing along. "It's nothing," says urspinner James Carville of the Starr investigation. "It's $ 50 million for four strands of DNA. I'm not coming home from vacation for that." Few others close to the president can affect the same calm. Lanny Davis, who left his job as a White House spinner several months ago, says his former colleagues who stayed behind are by this point "absolutely frustrated, beyond frustrated, disgusted." Former Clinton aide Bill Curry, now safely residing in Connecticut, agrees. "Most of them are beyond language so they can't actually articulate their feelings. You have to have see them in the flesh and read their expressions."
One of the most bewildered expressions must belong to Clinton adviser Paul Begala. A seasoned and accomplished scandal manager, Begala spent much of 1992 swatting down reporters' questions about the candidate's draft record, his relationship with Gennifer Flowers, and countless other now-forgotten flaps. Begala emerged from the campaign devoted to Clinton and has remained a loyal supporter. Yet, when the Monica Lewinsky story broke, Begala was shaken.
The very allegation that Clinton would have an affair with an intern, Begala said at the time, was "bizarre and disgusting and awful." Before going on television to defend his boss, Begala met with lawyers in the White House counsel's office to find out what exactly Clinton meant when he denied a "sexual relationship" with Lewinsky. "I wanted to be sure, to a certainty," Begala explained, "that what we meant by this was not anything cute or sick or twisted, but that it was a simple, decent meaning of these words. I wasn't going to be part of it if we had some sort of twisted defense."
Satisfied that Clinton was telling the whole truth -- not just the legal truth -- Begala did interview after interview, making statements that are almost painful to read now. "The president has looked me in the eye," Begala said at one point with what appeared to be genuine conviction, "looked the American people in the eye, and said he did not have an improper physical relationship, that he didn't ask anyone to lie. That's enough. I believe in this man."
Seven months later, it's not clear what Begala believes. Asked how he'll feel if, as just about everyone at the White House expects, Clinton finally admits to some sort of a relationship with Lewinsky, Begala refuses to answer. "I don't want to talk about my feelings," he says. "I just don't want to talk about my feelings. I just don't. Maybe one day I'll be able to share my feelings." Until then, he says, "I've got to keep my head down and help get him through this difficult . . . " Begala's voice trails off. He sounds sad. "Then I'll get on with my life."
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.