For Clinton, another day at Oval Office He focuses on Iraq, meetings as House debates impeachment


WASHINGTON -- As the House prepared to condemn the 42nd chief executive to an ignominious place in history, President Clinton stayed out of public sight yesterday, trying to maintain a business-as-usual appearance even in the face of certain impeachment.

In a White House glistening with Christmas trimmings -- belying the gravity of the day's proceedings and the grim faces and testy moods of the administration staff -- Clinton closeted himself in the West Wing as the House closed in on a vote to make him only the second U.S. president to be impeached.

Apparently out of hope, words and strategies, Clinton did "very little" last-minute lobbying yesterday to try to turn the tide of the impending vote, his spokesman said.

Aside from an hourlong meeting with moderate Republican Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, a previous impeachment opponent who recently has been wavering, Clinton proceeded with his presidential duties as if it was just another day in the Oval Office.

He monitored damage reports from the U.S. air strikes against Iraq, worked on the budget, conferred with a European Union delegation and met with his AIDS council. The only thing that distinguished hisschedule, in fact, was unusually minimal media access to his two official events.

According to White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, Clinton watched only "a moment or two" of the House debate between his scheduled meetings, and reported to his press secretary that he was in a "very good" mood -- the result, Clinton said, of seven hours of sleep Thursday night, the Christmas season and the fact that no harm had come to any of the U.S. forces deployed in Operation Desert Fox.

But while the president hunkered down in private sessions, not expected to make a public appearance until today after the historic House vote on his fate, others made last-minute appeals to the nation on his behalf.

In a departure from her recent silence on the subject of an impeachment based largely on Clinton's attempts to hide his marital infidelity, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered a few, carefully measured remarks yesterday, imploring the country to "end divisiveness."

"As we celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah and Ramadan -- and at a time for reflection and reconciliation among people -- we in our country ought to practice reconciliation and we ought to bring our country together," she said, when asked by reporters if she'd like to comment on the impeachment debate. "We ought to end divisiveness because we can do so much more together."

Hillary Clinton's rare comments, outside the White House at the close of an event for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, came within moments of the opening gavel at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

In recent days, the first lady has called House members to lobby on her husband's behalf and has consulted with constitutional scholars and historians. But White House aides have been urging her to speak out publicly given her heightened popularity these days and the value of her demonstrations of support for her husband.

"I think the vast majority of Americans share my approval and pride in the job that the president's been doing for our country," she said. "And I think that the view is shared not only by the vast majority of Americans, but by people all over the world."

Accepting an invitation from Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt, the first lady planned a trip to Capitol Hill this morning to meet with House Democrats. Her press secretary said she would make remarks similar to yesterday's public comments.

Vice President Al Gore, too, spoke out yesterday as he has for the last several days, saying in a radio interview that he was "fighting mad" about the impeachment proceedings and predicting that the Republicans would pay a heavy political price for their actions.

He declined to weigh in on the new disclosure that Speaker-designate Robert L. Livingston had confessed to marital infidelity, as had Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde months earlier. "I'm not going to get into their personal lives, but I'll tell you this: I am fighting mad about the way they are carrying out this impeachment matter," Gore told the American Urban Radio Network.

He accused the GOP leadership of "cracking the whip and threatening the members of their party to fall into line" by voting for impeachment.

"That's really what's going on here and it is dead wrong," he said. "They think that people are not going to remember this. Well, I think they may be dead wrong about that, too."

Asked if Clinton was preparing to resign, he said: "People can forget about that."

As the impeachment picture has looked increasingly bleak for the president, Clinton's allies have turned their attention to the Senate, which would proceed with a trial if the House approves at least one of the four articles of impeachment.

Although Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said earlier this week that the Senate would not consider anything less than a trial, Lockhart said Clinton intended to push for "some sort of bipartisan solution that will put this behind us," if not in the House, then in the Senate.

He said that a Senate trial could be damaging and disruptive to the nation, an argument used by many who have called for Clinton to resign.

But, he said, "I can't imagine a scenario where, if there were to be a trial on the Senate floor, the president wouldn't vigorously defend himself."

Noticeably testy and defensive in his briefing with reporters, the White House spokesman attacked the Republicans yesterday for devising a plan to get Clinton to resign.

"I think what you're seeing, especially in the last few days, is a shift in what has been a very cynical, political strategy by the Republican leadership in the House from impeachment to a building drumbeat to try to force the president to leave office," Lockhart said.

In describing that strategy, he said, "A conscious effort was made to, in effect, dumb down impeachment and say that this process wasn't important, that the real action was someplace else. And then, having gone through it, turn 180 degrees in the other direction and say, 'It's so important to this country and it's so damaging that the president should resign.' "

He, too, insisted Clinton would not step down.

But the specter of his premature departure from office loomed anyway, showing up on one occasion yesterday in a bit of gallows humor. At the meeting of his AIDS advisory council, the president warmly greeted longtime administration aide Robert Hattoy, who arrived late.

"I'm glad you're here," the president said.

"I'm glad you're here," Hattoy replied.

Pub Date: 12/19/98

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