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Jewish World Review /Dec. 18, 1998 / 29 Kislev, 5759

Roger Simon

Roger Simon Busy, busy Bubba

WASHINGTON -- It was a day of policy and politics one moment, Baghdad and bombs the next. And it was a day when all those things became the same thing.

It began the night before: There is a shower and bed on Air Force One, and President Clinton made use of both of them on the 11-hour flight Tuesday night from David Ben Gurion airport in Israel to Andrews Air Force Base just outside Washington.

Clinton had spent three grueling days in Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and had refused to cut the trip short even when political advisers asked him to. They wanted him to get more involved in lobbying lawmakers against impeachment, but Clinton wanted to stick to his game plan: Be seen staying above the fray; be seen doing the people's business.

Cabinet secretaries, labor leaders, corporate executives and even the vice president would make calls to lawmakers, but the president would talk only to those who called him first.

"We are not twisting arms," Joe Lockhart, the presidential spokesman said.

"We are bending ears."

The giant 747, stuffed with secure communications gear, took off, and Clinton huddled with Samuel "Sandy" Berger, his national security adviser and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Normally, they would have assessed the Mideast trip, but this time, all the talk was on Iraq.

While airborne, a conference call was made with Clinton's national security team including: Secretary of Defense William Cohen, CIA Director George Tenet, Clinton's Chief of Staff John Podesta and Gore's national security adviser, Leon Fuerth.

"We talked it through," Berger said. "We went around the horn and asked everybody what their recommendation was, and the recommendation was unanimous that the president should go forward."

Clinton picked up the phone and called his closest foreign ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose forces would join the United States in the attack.

Though the decision had been made, Clinton wanted to meet with everybody again face to face the next morning to see if anything had changed.

He slept for five hours and landed at Andrews about 11:15 p.m. He normally would have choppered directly to the South Lawn of the White House, but an enormous tent, erected for various holiday parties including the one for the White House press corps on Monday, blocked his landing location. So Clinton was forced to land near the reflecting pool on the Mall and motorcade to the White House.

Once there, he met with Podesta and Berger. Both men were worried that the president might be tiring himself, but Clinton said he was fine, and the meeting went into the wee hours. He interrupted it to call House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle to tell them about the upcoming attack. Eventually, he went to his private quarters.

He was up and about early Wednesday morning -- "and he is definitely not a morning person," a staffer said -- and he made the short, outdoor walk from the East Wing residence to the West Wing working quarters of the White House in the chill morning air.

Wednesday was supposed to be a "down" day with no public events, which is normal for the day after a foreign trip. On such days, Clinton often dresses casually, but this morning, he was wearing a suit and tie as he entered the West Wing and headed downstairs at 7:20 a.m. to an area below and just west of the Oval Office.

This was the Situations Room, which movies always portray as enormous and having giant state-of-the-art display screens and other electronic wonder equipment but which, in reality, is a fairly ordinary-looking room dominated by a large, oblong conference table.

Clinton took his seat at the head of the table, under the presidential seal on the wall, and was briefed by Cohen, Berger, Tenet, Albright, Fuerth and Joint Chiefs Chairman Lt. Gen. Hugh Shelton.

They brought him up to date as to U.S. readiness, Iraqi readiness and the evacuation of the UNSCOM inspectors. They told him U.S. allies in the region had been alerted.

By the end of that meeting, Iraq's fate was sealed. There would be no cancellation of the attack.

Clinton left the Situation Room and talked to Podesta, getting a fill on the state of the impeachment vote, the head count, the polls and the mood of the White House staff.

The latter was important to Clinton. He had publicly and privately apologized to the White House staff for lying to them about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and now, he was especially concerned with staff morale. He never underestimated the importance of a unified, energized staff.

So he did an unusual thing, something he has almost never done in his six years in office: He went to the senior staff meeting, which convenes every morning to discuss the day's work. The 30 or so top staffers who handle policy, politics and communications usually convene in the Roosevelt Room, across from the Oval Office, but Gore was using the room for an event so they crammed into Podesta's office.

Gene Sperling, director of the president's National Economic Council, was delivering a somewhat dry report on the economy, when the door opened and Clinton squeezed his way inside and let the door close behind him.

The shocked staffers jumped to their feet as they always do when the president enters a room, but they also did something they never do in private: They applauded.

"We didn't know about Iraq then -- only Podesta and Berger did -- so we were applauding just for how he was handling himself in the Middle East and with the impeachment and just how he wasn't letting things affect him," a senior staff member, who was present, said.

Clinton looked grateful. "Keep up the good work for the people," Clinton said. "The reason the American people are supporting us so strongly is because of the work we are doing on their behalf."

He was referring to his polls, which have been holding rock steady since the Lewinsky story broke: About two-thirds of the American people approve of the job he is doing, a record for second-term presidents. About 60 percent do not want to see him impeached.

This public support is the chief leverage he has with his opponents in Congress, but still, things have not been going well. Nobody in Congress faces a vote for two years, and many think the public will not punish them for voting against Clinton.

"Do the work for the people," Clinton went on. "That's our job. The other stuff will take care of itself."

The staff was silent, some overcome with emotion. The president is a large man, and he dominated the small room, his eyes moving from staffer to staffer as he talked, capturing each for a moment before moving on.

"The American people usually get it right," he said. "And they got it right this time."

The staff applauded again as the president left. And then, Gene Sperling began droning on again about the economy.

Clinton walked up to the Oval Office, where he called the leadership of both parties to update them on the attack. Then, he met with Gore, who congratulated him on the Mideast trip and talked about politics and the impeachment vote.

"I would just say that I believe on Capitol Hill there is still time for Democrats and Republicans to come together and embrace a bipartisan compromise to seek a resolution that is both quick and fair and try to turn away from the bitter partisanship that we have seen so far," Gore said later. "That is what the American people want, and that is what is in the best interests of this country."

The White House game plan had been set: To vote for impeachment was to vote for partisan politics and against the interests of the country.

When Gore left, Clinton continued to make calls, and at about 1 p.m., he and White House special counsel Greg Craig met with Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.) in the Oval Office to talk about impeachment. Houghton had been favoring censure, a fine and the cancellation of the Clinton's State of the Union speech, scheduled for Jan. 19, 1999, as an alternative to impeachment.

As a sign of how badly the president wanted Houghton's support, Clinton spent 50 minutes with him. He was also supposed to meet with Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who had also requested a meeting, later in the day.

Clinton kept working on his address to the nation until at 5:30 p.m., with his address only about a half hour away and knowing that the Congress would be delaying his impeachment vote, he had a staffer call Shays and postpone.

When it came time for his speech, he settled in behind his big desk in the Oval Office, with the networks cutting in a few seconds early and catching him sipping some water.

The White House has been leery of using the Oval Office as a backdrop since it is "the scene of the crime" so to speak, but no other location was deemed proper for so serious a speech.

After the speech, Clinton stayed in the West Wing, dropping in on staffers and walking the halls, the conversation flowing back and forth between politics and air strikes.

Just the day before, he had been asked how he could possibly concentrate on so many issues with his own impeachment pending.

"You show up for work every day," he said with a shrug. "It's not a complicated thing." to?


12/08/98: "Doing the people's business"
12/04/98: Censure-plus
11/24/98: Bubba's brilliance
11/24/98: See Bubba run; Run, Bubba, run
11/20/98: Lost in Japan
11/17/98: Saddam will strike because we did not
11/12/98: Too bad we can't just blow Saddam away
11/10/98: Will the Republicans ever learn?
11/05/98: Monica? Monica who?
11/03/98: Telling the truth about journalists
10/30/98: The vanishing president
10/27/98:Bubba's last hurrah?
10/23/98: Podesta is used to cleaning toilets
10/15/98: Glenn will once again be an American original
9/24/98: The greatest political actor of our time
9/17/98: Bubba's 'weasel words' --only a partial list (There's only 24 hours in a day)
9/17/98: Hah, I told ya so!
9/08/98: Orthodox Jew Lieberman's moral outrage: Why religion matters in politics
9/04/98: Bubbasky
8/27/98: Cigars?
8/25/98: Why it's all-Lewinsky-all-day-all-night
8/21/98: From magnifying glass to microscope
8/19/98: Let's be blunt: Bubba really needs a shrink --- and fast!
8/13/98: At home, with real, live FOBs
8/11/98: Bubba's new secret weapon: the Marine Band
8/07/98: Has the presidency been reduced to a 'Leno' joke?
8/05/98: Tell the truth?
7/30/98: All ya need is luv...and to deny, deny, deny
7/28/98: 'Man-of-da-people,' huh?
7/23/98: Can frequent-flyer miles alone earn Bubba a Nobel Prize?
7/21/98: San Francisco: not only 'gay,' but happy
7/17/98: Why Bubba claims Y2K is US' biggest problem
7/14/98: Close Amtrak --- PLEASE!
7/9/98: Flag burning is for nuts!
7/7/98: Forget about his legal defense fund, buy Bubba shirts!
7/1/98: Wall-nuts
6/26/98: Perks and the press
6/23/98: There's a good reason Bubba wants gun-control...
6/19/98: Why Clinton can get away with going to Tiananmen Square
6/16/98: Maybe Big Brother ain't so bad after all
6/11/98: He claimed responsibility for Rwanda, so why isn't Bubba stopping Serbian genocide?
6/9/98: The Internet president?
6/4/98: You can call me ‘slick;' and you can call me ‘sick;' but never call me ‘Dick' .... as in Nixon, that is
6/2/98: Being a 'talkin'-head' is hard work
5/29/98 Pay the pol, pick the policy
5/27/98 A 'loo' in London
5/21/98Buba is back from Europe ... but what did he accomplish?
5/18/98Roses for Buba
5/12/98: Just who is "Mr. Republican" these days?"
5/7/98:"Why Clinton keeeps "going and going and going""
5/1/98:"Bubba v. Tabacka"
4/29/98:"You may ask, but should they tell?"
4/24/98:"McCurry and the kids from the ‘hood "
4/23/98: "NOW" should change its name to "THEN"
4/20/98: Freedom to be a jerk?
4/14/98: Bill is Hef's kinda guy
4/7/98: South African memories --- and a paradise not yet found
3/24/98: Bill's 12-day safari
3/20/98: Peace for Ireland?
3/18/98: Flat tire? Spare me
3/13/98: Latrell Sprewell's genius
3/10/98: On truth and reality
3/5/98: No, I'm not harrassing Hillary
3/3/98: The Unforgettable Henny Youngman
2/26/98: Grow up, boys!
2/24/98: Go get 'em, Bill!
2/19/98: My 15 minutes
2/17/98: The manic-depressive presidency
2/12/98: Drip, Drip, Drip
2/10/98: Clinton tunes out the networks
2/5/98: The flight of the Beast: America's love-hate relationship with scandal
2/3/98: Speaking Clintonese
1/29/98: What the president has going for him
1/27/98: Judgment call: how Americans view President Clinton
1/22/98: Bimbo eruptions past and present
1/20/98: Feeding the beast: Paula Jones gets the full O.J.
1/15/98: Let's get it over with: it's time to deal with Saddam, already
1/13/98: Sonny Bono is dead, let the good times roll
1/8/98: Carribbean Cheesecake: First couple has cake, eats cake
1/6/98: PO'ed: a suspected druggie jumps through the employment hoops
1/1/98: Cures for that holiday hangover
12/30/97: Buy stuff now
12/25/97: Peace to all squirrelkind
12/23/97: Home for the Holidays: Where John Hinckley, never convicted, will not be
12/18/97: Bill's B-list Bacchanalia: Press and politicos get cozy, to a point
12/16/97: All dressed up... (White House flack Mike McCurry speculates on his next career)

©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.