(adv weekend feb 20-21 or thereafter)
(NOTE: refiling to update 1st item)
Backstairs at the White House
By HELEN THOMAS
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
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
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
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
Copyright 1999 by United Press International.
All rights reserved.