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White House Staff Works at Staying Focused

Controversy: Employees try to concentrate on the State of the Union address and other policy matters. But for many, there's a pervading sense of gloom.


WASHINGTON — There have been tough times before in Bill Clinton's White House. But never quite as tough as these.

As their boss was confronted at every turn with mushrooming allegations of a sex scandal, downcast White House staffers struggled Thursday to attend to the real tasks at hand: a critical visit by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and preparations for the looming State of the Union address and the fiscal 1999 budget.

When pressed, White House officials and employees acknowledged that the furor over President Clinton's alleged involvement with a former White House intern was never far from their minds.

But they insisted that key staff functions, including meetings both with and without the president, are proceeding according to schedule.

"The functions and other stuff do go on," said Rahm Emanuel, a top Clinton advisor. "I'm not going to sit here and try to act like this is not a major issue, but there are other things. This is a very important and pressing issue, but not engulfing."

Emanuel, for instance, attended a 12:15 p.m. meeting with the president to go over the fifth draft of the State of the Union speech that Clinton will deliver Tuesday.

Work went on, but for many it was accompanied by a pervading sense of gloom. The scale of uneasiness is, in one official's words, a "quantum level" above that associated with previous Clinton administration controversies.

Friends stopped to talk with each other in the corridors of the White House and the adjacent Old Executive Office building. Everywhere, television sets were turned on and tuned to CNN, which broadcast nearly continuous coverage of the allegations that Clinton conducted a lengthy affair with the young intern and later encouraged her to deny it had happened.

Several White House officials acknowledged that even when they managed to keep themselves busy with matters of policy and planning, their thoughts continued to turn to the same troubling question: "What if?"

"There are some people who feel: 'I don't care whether he did it or not, I just don't want the whole house to come down,' which is not an unreasonable position for someone who wants to have a career here and support a family," noted one White House official, who asked that his name not be used.

One official said that although he has continued to work away at his regular duties, it has proved impossible to keep the episode entirely out of his mind.

"It's very distracting," he said. "There's a lot of discontent with being distracted by other things when you want to get your work done and because lots of good stuff is getting overshadowed."

Since the accuracy of the allegations remains difficult to determine, some staffers characterized the environment as a state of suspended disbelief.

"We all hope our trust hasn't been betrayed," said one official.

The pace at the White House was particularly frenetic in the parts of the building that deal directly with the press and politics. White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said he believes the investigation is more troublesome for those who have jobs dealing with policy issues. Those, like him, whose jobs are directed largely at combating the negative press do not have to worry about getting other work accomplished.

"In a way, I'm grateful that I have a different job than others in the White House who have to sit around and stay focused," McCurry said. "I think it's a lot harder for staffers who have to stay focused on the real work."

Many staffers, McCurry said, seem frustrated because they are busy crafting policies and initiatives that are not being communicated effectively because the press is preoccupied with the allegations.

The White House had planned to roll out this week a new presidential initiative on pension policy, which is scheduled to be included in the State of the Union.

"The plan had been to put some of that out, but there's not much point in attempting to do that," McCurry said.

To be sure, some White House officials said they were so busy with pressing affairs of state they did not even have time to be distracted.

The intern episode comes at one of the busiest points in the White House's annual schedule, when final touches are being put on the legislative agenda and fiscal plan for the coming year.

"We're right in the crunch period to deal with all that," said one official, who asked not to be named. "In an odd way, I'm not susceptible to distraction because I've got too many things to do."

One senior advisor to the president remarked that the foreign policy branch of the White House seems surprisingly unaffected. In addition to the Arafat visit, officials were busy monitoring the Asian financial crisis and ongoing tensions with Iraq.

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