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President battles nemeses: Hussein and impeachment Clinton's famous ability to compartmentalize gets ultimate workout


WASHINGTON -- One moment, the tired, beleaguered and imperiled president was imploring a Republican lawmaker to help him avoid impeachment. The next moment, the commander-in-chief, flags perched behind him, was addressing the nation from the Oval Office, announcing "a strong, sustained series of airstrikes against Iraq."

The "split-screen presidency" that has characterized the past few days and weeks at the White House could not have been more evident yesterday as President Clinton struggled to fight both near-certain impeachment and Saddam Hussein, two fearsome and bedeviling nemeses.

As the military showdown with Iraq collided with historic House action on Clinton's fate, both the president and members of Congress proceeded on dual tracks yesterday, shuttling back and forth between two issues as incompatible as cruise missiles and Christmas, but both profound.

Lawmakers have been saying for weeks that the only thing that (( comes close to being as grave and important as a decision on impeachment is a declaration of war.

Clinton's reputation as the "Great Compartmentalizer" was put to the ultimate test, as his congressional opponents suggested he launched the military strikes in a desperate, self-serving move to postpone the impeachment vote and try to enhance his political standing.

Haggard and strained

In his address to the nation last evening, Clinton, looking haggard and strained, did not address the accusations head-on but repeatedly insisted that the decision to take military action was based on the "unanimous recommendation" of his national security team.

His one reference to impeachment was a warning to Iraq that no assumption should be made that his resolve was weakened by the domestic political crisis.

"When we must act," he said, "we will do so."

After returning late Tuesday night from the Middle East, Clinton began his day with a 7: 30 a.m. meeting with his national security advisers in the White House Situation Room, where he made the decision to authorize the airstrike against Iraq.

Throughout the day, he spoke with congressional leaders about Iraq -- presumably some of the same lawmakers who have said they will vote to impeach Clinton -- as well as U.S. allies abroad.

But the backdrop to all of the emergency national security meetings was the impending impeachment vote -- originally scheduled to begin in the House today but postponed because of the military intervention -- and the reality that so many Republicans were lining up against the president that impeachment seemed unstoppable.

As he grappled with the Iraq crisis, Clinton took time to meet at the White House with New York Rep. Amo Houghton, one of a handful of Republicans who have announced their opposition to impeachment.

A bargain for censure

Houghton brought with him a proposal for a censure resolution that would include a $500,000 fine to be paid by Clinton, cancellation of the 1999 State of the Union address, and a provision banning the president from Democratic fund raising.

A scheduled afternoon meeting with Rep. Christopher Shays, the Connecticut Republican who once opposed impeachment but recently crept back onto the fence, was canceled because of the Iraqi crisis.

The mood at the White House was dismal, with aides becoming resigned to the fact that Clinton was unlikely to stave off impeachment, and preparing for the matter to move to the Senate.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said Clinton dropped in on the morning meeting of the senior White House staff to tell aides "the important thing was to concentrate on the jobs we were sent here to do."

In a last-ditch effort to turn the tide, Clinton's defenders pressed on with a call for a censure resolution or some sort of bipartisan compromise and attacked the Republican impeachment effort as raw partisan politics.

"I believe on Capitol Hill there is still time for Democrats and Republicans to 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," said Vice President Al Gore, who canceled a trip to New Hampshire and instead made phone calls to select House members on the president's behalf.

"That is what the American people want, and that is what is in the best interests of this country."

New White House strategy

Lanny Davis, former White House special counsel who is among those included in a daily conference call of Clinton allies, said the strategy now was to drive home to the electorate the partisan nature of the impeachment proceedings.

"The sheer political power play by [House Republican Whip] Tom DeLay to block a censure vote will be the focus for the next couple days, in the Senate, and up to Election Day 2000," Davis said.

He said that if he had described yesterday's surreal state of affairs to anyone back in September, they would have "sent me to an asylum." But he said he was not surprised by Clinton's ability to juggle a severe personal situation with a volatile national security crisis.

"He's earned an extremely high popularity rating precisely because he's able to compartmentalize and separate his personal problems from performance issues," Davis said. "He'll somehow manage."

Pub Date: 12/17/98

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