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Clinton's Trip to Martha's Vineyard Was Hardly a Vacation From Politics

NEWS ANALYSIS

Scandal: President experiences a restless respite after admitting to inappropriate relationship with intern. Pressure is expected to intensify.

August 30, 1998|ART PINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EDGARTOWN, Mass. — President Clinton wrapped up a restless vacation on Martha's Vineyard island on Saturday having made a cautious--sometimes faltering--start on repairing some of the damage to his presidency.

Fresh from his Aug. 17 admission that he had an inappropriate relationship with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, Clinton arrived in Martha's Vineyard 12 days ago with two goals. One was to demonstrate that he still retains political authority with the voters. The other was to begin "healing" the hurt within his family.

Now, as Clinton prepares to return today to Washington in advance of his trip to Russia on Monday afternoon, he can point to some bit of progress--admittedly inconclusive--on the first. Two brief forays into political rallies this past week, admittedly in friendly crowds, both netted him warm receptions.

But from the day he arrived, Clinton was under pressure from aides and critics who wanted him to make a second, more contrite statement on the Lewinsky affair. His response was to serve up an awkward, and ultimately confusing, bit of rhetoric about "forgiveness" that never quite qualified as an apology. In the process, he may have only exacerbated the situation.

As a result, "very little has changed from the speech he gave on Aug. 17," Charles Jones, a University of Wisconsin presidential scholar, said Saturday. "He is trying to enhance a very weakened political position, but with what he has done so far, it hardly has been touched."

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As for what White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry referred to as the "healing" within the first family, it was anyone's guess what the real situation was. While Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton have seemed distant in their few public appearances here--and aides cautioned that the process would take time--there was no discerning how real the domestic crisis actually was.

Despite Mrs. Clinton's assertion that she only learned the truth about the Lewinsky affair the weekend before the president's televised address, she has coped with such situations before and apparently made some sort of peace with the president's behavior.

Apparently emboldened by his two earlier political appearances, Clinton spent 15 minutes on Saturday working the crowds in tourist-heavy Edgartown, stopping in at a few of his favorite stores and making small talk with vacationers. Again, the reception he got was warm. But his political venturing out has all been in relatively controlled situations: a day trip Thursday to nearby Worcester for a speech before several hundred Democratic partisans and an appearance Friday at a predominantly black church celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

Perhaps a better measure of the effect of the Lewinsky scandal has been what Clinton and his family did not do during the last two weeks. Unlike previous vacations here, the president played no golf, eschewed his usual jogging and did little in the line of partying.

His one afternoon of sailing was not with the Kennedys, as it was during his vacation here last year, but with former newscaster Walter Cronkite. And it appeared to be followed by a more serious private visit later.

Even Clinton's contacts with the press have been tightly controlled. Reporters covering his few forays have been kept back too far either to hear much or to shout questions at the chief executive. After his speech on forgiveness, aides declined to provide any explanation of what he meant.

To be sure, Clinton has had to contend with serious distractions during his 12 days here. The adverse reaction to his Aug. 17 speech doubtless surprised him. And two days after he arrived, he had to return to Washington in connection with U.S. missile strikes in the Sudan and Afghanistan.

But it seems clear as the president's vacation comes to an end that his brief experiments on both the political front and the home front were only a start and that he still has a lot of work to do with Congress and the American public.

Jones said he did not expect the president to resolve such problems in a week. But, he added, the problems involving Clinton's presidency "are so serious that the president has to help us with the solution--and fast."

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