(adv weekend feb 20-21 or thereafter)

(NOTE: refiling to update 1st item) Backstairs at the White House


UPI White House Reporter

WASHINGTON All of a sudden, it's sweetness and light. The White House press corps, which had been shunned for months like the plague during the impeachment ordeal, suddenly is finding a new friendliness on the part of President and Mrs. Clinton.

En route to Mexico, aboard Air Force One, with the impeachment trial behind them, the smiling first couple passed around a Valentine's Day box of chocolates for the traveling press.

As he had the press eating out of his hands, the president tried mightily to keep the conversation on chocolates, saying inexplicably at one point, ''This is a better kind of heart of darkness.''

And while it left writers with a good taste in their mouths, White House chief of staff John Podesta came back afterward to extinguish any hopes that official policy toward reporters was about to change. ''The candy was not meant to be nice to you,'' Podesta declared. ''We want the same relations as before.''

The first lady showed off to reporters a heart-shaped lapel pin, a gift from her husband.

So, once again there are new gestures on the part of the Clintons to be kinder and gentler to the media maybe 'till the next crisis comes along. Scapegoating the press is par for the course at the White House under many regimes, Democratic and Republican, and the lack of access to a president who is in trouble goes with the turf.

Clinton's acquittal on two articles of impeachment, perjury and obstruction of justice, permits him to open a new chapter in his presidency, to repair his legacy, and make another bid for bipartisanship. He can smile again.

The auditorium of the Executive Office Building next door to the White House, where many news conferences have been held in the past, is now dubbed ''Presidential Hall.'' When press secretary Joe Lockhart used the term and there was a slight groan from reporters, he mused on whether he should change the name of his office. Witty CBS correspondent Mark Knoller piped up ''Stonewall Hall.''

The investigation into President Clinton's sex life took its toll on all the White House personnel, even the maintenance crews who come into the West Wing of the Executive Mansion around midnight to clean the offices for the next day. Several members of the cleaning crews were summoned to testify before special prosecutor Kenneth Starr's investigators and they were not happy about it. The same goes for Secret Service agents whose job it is to protect the president's security, not to invade his privacy.

Starr's office knew no limits in Washington or in LIttle Rock, Ark. to secure personal information about the president.

The president put his staff through much anguish and anxiety, especially when the subpoenas arrived, and soon when their lawyers' bills were dropped in the mail.

To apologize to them, a message was issued to the staff of the Senate's impeachment trial of Clinton that ended in an acquittal. Here are some excerpts:

''I want to thank you personally,'' he wrote, ''for all you are doing for this administration and our nation. Working at the White House is a great privilege, but I know it is also often a burden on you, and on the family nd friends to whom you turn for support. That has meant long days, late nights, ad many weekends here and I want you to know how grateful I am.

''The past year has been especially difficult for you,'' he added. ''I know that my actions and the events they triggered have made your work even harder. For that, I am profoundly sorry. In all this, under the most extrordinary of circumstances, you never lost sight of your first obligation to serve the people of our nation. For that, I am profoundly grateful.''

Hillary Rodham Clinton is enjoying teasing the press corps on whether

she will run for the Senate from New York and is playing her cards close to her chest, although she says she is ''deeply gratified'' at the encouragement she has received. The president says she would be a ''terrific'' senator and apparently has given her the go-ahead.

The first lady says she will make up her mind later this year, but she may be urged to make a decision sooner than that since others are waiting in the wings to take the plunge if she decides not to.

Obviously, she is faced with many choices and has to weigh the decision carefully. She would be the junior senator from New York if she ran and won. Freshmen lawmakers should be seen and not heard according to tradition on Capitol Hill.

In reality, she should think long and hard. She will have much more power as a former first lady, above the crowd. She could serve with an international organization, head a university, serve on several corporate boards and rake in the millions with her memoirs.

Furthermore, she would be a freer soul. As a senator, she would have more constraints and be beholden to one constitutency.

Meantime, as long as she isn't ruling in or ruling out whether she will run, she has assured blanket press coverage until she says the word one way or another.

She also might have to revise her view of the press and the aloofness she has maintained with reporters since she moved into the White House.

On the other hand, she would have the satisfaction of a political identity of her own, not as the wife of a politician, and she will be able to spread her wings.

Adding to the speculation is the fact that she sounded out her prospects with Harold Ickes, Clinton's key political strategist in past campaigns, and she is talking to other Democratic pols to get the lay of the land.

White House press secretary Joe Lockhart showed a little forthrightness the other day when he was asked point-blank: ''How do you feel about your role of blocking the news for 10 months?'' That meant how did he feel about not answering reporters' questions regarding many, many aspects of the Monica Lewinsky scandal during the time independent counsel Kenneth Starr was investigating and the Congress then conducting impeachment proceedings. Clinton was acquitted on the two articles of impeachment, perjury and obstruction of justice, last week.

Lockhart had a quick reply: ''I'm looking forward to not playing that role anymore.''

But he still got a bunch of those kind of questions that day, including one about the televised comments of Linda Tripp, the Pentagon employee who taped her conversations with Lewinsky regarding her affair with the president. And he quickly went back to the old style.

Told that Tripp had alleged Clinton was still fooling around and that she was afraid for her life because of retaliation against her, Lockhart said, ''I'll stand by my 'ludicrous' line,'' which, for the uninitated, was a comment several days back that essentially means he isn't going to dignify the question with a response.

The Clintons will be headed for California on the last weekend in February to celebrate their daughter Chelsea's 19th birthday. The western swing is also expected to include some presidential and political events in a state where Clinton is always welcome.

It also is another step in their family healing in the aftermath of the revelation of the president's liaison with former intern Monica Lewinsky, and the impeachment trial which ended in acquittal.

Meantime, Clinton is spending a lot of time with his in-laws. The first lady's mother, Dorothy Rodham, has been a houseguest at the White house since the impeachment trial came to a close, and Hugh Rodham, the first lady's brother, has been a constant golfing companion for the president.

Copyright 1999 by United Press International.

All rights reserved.