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From High to Anxiety, White House Loses '92 Euphoria : Politics: After the promise of Clinton's election, the mood turns quiet as a more-GOP future dawns on the midterm Administration.

November 09, 1994|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — On the last big election night, members of President Clinton's inner circle cheered, stomped their feet, kissed each other and delivered impassioned speeches about their plans to show Washington and the country how government could work.

They didn't do any of that Tuesday night.

The Clinton White House weathered Election Day '94 with weary stoicism mingled with dread about a future that appeared likely to contain Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The script called for everyone to pretend it was business as usual, but it became harder as the night wore on and the Democrats were losing both the House and the Senate.

A series of aides emerged to try to salvage what they could from the dismal events. Voters were not totally rejecting their Administration, they insisted, just sending another message demanding change in Washington--a message that the White House received, loud and clear.

Meanwhile, Clinton himself stayed publicly silent as he paced around on the second floor of the residential quarters, watching the returns with First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. The President took comfort where he could find it--as in the victory of Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.).

Clinton had gone out on a limb to campaign for Robb, and the victory over Republican Oliver L. North "might have been the race that he cared most about anywhere," ventured one aide.

But between the brave statements, other sentiments were clear.

"You can't help but take it personally," one aide said with a sigh. "You come to Washington with all these fantastic dreams of the things you're going to do. And you soon find out what the other side can do to close you out."

The Administration had prepared for the election verdict in a customary fashion: It set up a war room. Extra phones and television sets were brought to a basement office. Political aides milled around through the night, gathering information, coordinating their explanations and keeping the boss briefed.

The President seemed outwardly cheerful as he worked through a schedule of economic and foreign policy meetings, last-minute election interviews and meetings with White House volunteers and supporters. But nothing could conceal his own preoccupation with the election results that would say so much about the future of his legislative agenda and his own prospects for reelection in 1996.

All day, Clinton took and made phone calls to gather political information and eagerly perused papers showing early exit polls on the races. "Nothing got done," said one aide.

Clinton seemed even a bit plaintive when he entreated White House volunteers in a midafternoon meeting on the South Lawn to go to the polls, as if an extra few hundred votes could turn the tide. "I hope all of you will go to the polls today," he asked them. And in a radio interview, he entreated: "It's important for us not to go to the polls in a negative frame of mind."

The White House seemed to be the only place in Washington that did not set up an election pool--maybe because the subject hit just a bit too close to home.

Since last week's trip to the Mideast, Clinton has done little to erase his sleep deficit--but no one expected him to do much about it on election night. Some people at the White House were already thinking ahead to the coming session of Congress, in which the Administration's agenda is not likely to go far. And some White House staffers were rethinking their careers.

"People are planning on leaving already. They're burned out already," said an aide. But the Republican sweep probably will push that trend even further, this official added, except for the core of Clinton loyalists.

Down to the election's final moments, the adversaries were laying the blame at the door of the White House. California Gov. Pete Wilson blasted away with charges that Clinton had "demeaned his office," not told the truth and "succumbed to the worst demons in his own nature."

But the White House was rejecting any claims that they were the central reason for the voters' judgment. Was this the Clinton White House's first report card?

"No," insisted White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers. "This is about a lot of local issues and congressional candidates."

If the ride was rough, the President did not entirely forget his manners. After thanking the volunteers on the South Lawn, he presided at a reception for several hundred Democrats who had helped with the election campaign.

And he met privately with the two passersby who two weeks ago tackled a gunman outside the White House as he fired an assault rifle at the building. "It's only too bad those guys can't help him with this one," said one aide.

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