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Weathering a Political Storm

Leadership: As controversy swirls around him, president hits the road. He pushes his agenda and manages to raise funds for Democratic Party.


PHILADELPHIA — To listen to Bill Clinton, to watch him on the road, is to encounter a president clinging to his public duties while controversy swirls all around him.

Thousands upon thousands of pages of documents flutter down from Capitol Hill, all focusing in one way or another on his relations with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.

The Congress of the United States angrily debates whether to throttle back its impeachment machinery.

But Clinton steps into the brisk autumn sunshine on the White House South Lawn, setting off for a day that includes a fund-raising luncheon in Cleveland and a political dinner in Philadelphia. He talks about the recession in Asia, the congressional elections, Social Security, education, patient care, the farm crisis and the plight of Kosovo. In short, anything, everything, but his own survival in office.

Occasionally, he gives a nod of recognition to the controversy. He offered this self-deprecating jab in Cleveland:

"I want you to understand . . . that we all have to live with the consequences of our mistakes in life," he said to uncomfortable laughter at a fund-raising luncheon for Mary Boyle, the Democratic Party's Senate candidate in Ohio. "Most of us don't have to live with it in quite such a public way. But nobody gets out of this life for free. Nobody does."

The controversy has a way of intruding on his day.

His motorcade had gone no more than a half-mile from Hopkins International Airport on the outskirts of Cleveland when it encountered a radio station's large billboard depicting caricatures of Clinton and Lewinsky, the Washington Monument looming in the distance behind them, and the not-at-all subtle message over the drawings: "Lovin', touchin', squeezin'. WNCX-FM."

And as has happened increasingly on his political circuit over the last month, Clinton's hosts seem compelled to make oblique references to the problems that have arisen from his association with the (never-mentioned) woman the president once referred to as "that woman."

"Mr. President," said Thomas "Tony" George, a local developer at whose home the luncheon was held, "these are your friends here today. They have been your friends since the beginning, and they will continue to support you into the millennium. As friends should do."

To such comments, Clinton responded: "I can't thank you enough, a lot of you who came by and said hello to me earlier, for the very kind personal things you said to me and, through me, to my wife. But I want you to understand something very clearly: If I had to do it all over again, every day, I would do it in a heartbeat, to see America where it is today as compared to six years ago."

And at each stop--from Kathleen's Kitchen, a diner where he dropped in for lunch, to the George house--crowds gathered, offering a mix of signs supporting Clinton and, invariably, calling for his immediate resignation.

"You can't buy honor or veto truth. Resign," said one sign in Cleveland. And as the president spoke at a dinner in the Philadelphia City Hall, a group of boisterous Teamsters, chanting insistently "two more years," paraded in support of Clinton and roughed up a man carrying a sign reading, "Jail to the chief."

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