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Spirit moves president to run as fast as he can


I'M LIKE everybody else in America who watches Bill Clinton go to work every day when he should be having a stroke. How does he do it? When I saw Rep. Elijah Cummings the other day, I asked him about the state of Clinton's mental health, and never mind for a moment the state of the union.

"I've only seen him depressed one time," Cummings said. He and New York Rep. Charles Rangel went to the White House for a Clinton radio address, "right after the news broke about Monica. Usually, there's a pretty good crowd. This time, there were only a few of us. The president looked pretty bad.

"And he pulled Rangel and me aside, near the Oval Office, and he asked us to pray with him."

"Sounds like Nixon and Kissinger," I said. Cummings grimaced at the comparison. In the death rattle of his presidency, Richard Nixon asked Henry Kissinger to get on his knees with him in the eeriness of a haunted White House. With Nixon, though, it seemed desperately out of character: The man possessed by demons, who seemed to have made so many deals with the devil himself, who had hidden so much of his human vulnerability, was seeking one last deal with God. Clinton, for all his manifest human flaws, for all the embarrassment he has brought the country, has always seemed at ease with his sense of spirituality.

"What did you pray?" I asked Cummings. "The Lord's Prayer?"

He looked puzzled for a moment and then began to laugh. "Lord's Prayer?" he said. He reached out his hand and laid it atop my head.

"My daddy and mama are both preachers," he said. "Man, I can pray."

In the White House, he said, he put his hand on Bill Clinton's head, and he asked God for strength for the beleaguered president. Strength to survive a difficult time, he intoned. God's will be done, he declared, but give this president the strength to deal with that will.

"That's what we were taught at home," Cummings was saying Tuesday morning, in the hours leading up to Clinton's State of the Union address. " 'Don't be too specific when you're praying. Every piece of life is part of your journey, but ask for the strength to deal with it. Be strong, bear your burdens. Stay steadfast in your efforts to see the big picture.' "

It was the last time Cummings saw this president in overt need of emotional sustenance. He figures he has seen him maybe 15 times in the past year, including the autumn visit Clinton made to Baltimore, to New Psalmist Baptist Church, a visit made at Cummings' request.

When he saw Clinton Tuesday night, with the rest of the country tuning in, Cummings saw the same remarkable thing everyone else saw: a man so outwardly relaxed, in control, absorbed by the business of his job, that we no longer consider it remarkable to see him this way.

For months, the underlying question about Clinton's presidency, about the sex investigation and willful humiliation of Clinton, and about the impeachment deliberations, has been: How does he go on?

"He compartmentalizes," Cummings said, echoing the common wisdom.

But it's more than that. Clinton went 77 minutes Tuesday night, but he could have gone twice that, maybe more, maybe never stopped for the next two years. The job is his escape from the grand humiliations of his existence. It's his chance to write his side of the story for future historians. It's his rebuttal-in-advance, his constant incentive to run as fast as he can.

Thus, Tuesday night, he seemed to hand in his homework report in his opening moments: 18 million new jobs, home ownership higher than ever, welfare and unemployment their lowest in 40 years. The budget balanced for the first time in 30 years, and the budget surplus secure for the next 25 years. Violent crime the lowest in 25 years. And all with Clinton in the White House.

Against all this, the Republicans sitting on their hands Tuesday night made themselves look petty for the TV cameras. Against all this, the president was implicitly saying to the whole country, what's all this nonsense about removing him from office?

The polls say the country doesn't want it. The Republican leadership talks of morality, talks of ignoring polls, but if you watched the local TV news Tuesday evening, there was Rep. Robert Ehrlich, the Baltimore Republican, and when asked about Clinton, Ehrlich replied that the country wanted to get back to business, wanted to deal with Social Security and defense spending.

In that moment, Ehrlich, one of Newt Gingrich's bully boys, seemed to be speaking in code, seemed to be telling his constituents, "I've seen those polls. I know what you're thinking: Put this behind us."

"I'll tell you something," Cummings was saying. "I think Clinton's conduct with Monica Lewinsky was terrible. It's indefensible. And I've said that every time people ask me about it. But it's not impeachable.

"And it's like Martin Luther King Sr. said: 'You can't lead where you do not go, and you cannot teach what you do not know.' Because of what Clinton's been through, no matter how it comes out, he'll be a better man for it."

At the least, he has seen his approval ratings look heavenly. And those Republicans trying to remove him must be wondering, have they got a prayer?

Pub Date: 1/21/99

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