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Clinton Says He, Not Gore, Merits Blame

Ethics: Speaking to ministers, president tries to distance vice president from his moral failings. 'I'm . . . trying to totally rebuild my life,' he says.


SOUTH BARRINGTON, Ill. — President Clinton sought Thursday to distance Al Gore from the most personally difficult and politically dangerous moment of his presidency--his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky--while helping the vice president share in his administration's successes.

"Surely no fair-minded person would blame him for any mistake that I made," the president said, after recalling that at the height of attacks on his conduct he had said of Gore: "He doesn't get enough credit for what we did together that is good."

Clinton volunteered the comment, slipping it in at the end of an 83-minute interview before about 4,500 ministers and other religious leaders and relayed by satellite video to perhaps 6,000 others around the country. The interviewer was the Rev. Bill Hybels, who has met with Clinton throughout his presidency. He is one of a quartet of ministers who counseled the president after his affair with the White House intern.

By introducing the idea that his vice president--who will get the Democratic Party's presidential nomination next week in Los Angeles--should be considered blameless when questions are raised about White House ethics, the president made his most public effort yet to counter the Republicans' campaign to tar Gore with his mistakes.

Clinton made no reference to Gore when the subject of his relationship with Lewinsky was raised. Instead, he talked about his vice president's role in the administration and attempted to build a political firewall for him only in the final moments of the interview.

A Need to Inoculate Gore

Clinton has made only rare references to the Lewinsky matter in the 18 months since the Senate failed to convict him after his impeachment by the House. But the White House has felt a need to inoculate Gore from the sort of attacks that were a recurring theme of the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia last week, where repeated references were made to integrity and honor--code words meant to remind voters of Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky.

White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said that arrangements for the interview at an annual conference on religious leadership were worked out by Clinton and Hybels, senior pastor of the nondenominational Willow Creek Community Church here.

The minister asked the president about the state of his spirituality and sought to lift the curtain on his private meetings with the president. Clinton's aides, however, anticipated that the president would be asked about his behavior with Lewinsky.

The result was an occasionally humorous, sometimes revealing dialogue that went well beyond Clinton's extramarital affair and delved into spiritual matters rarely addressed in public.

"I feel much more at peace than I used to," Clinton said. "And I think that, as awful as what I went through was, humiliating as it was, more to others than to me even, sometimes when you think you've got something behind you and then it's not behind you, this sort of purging process, if it doesn't destroy you, can bring you to a different place."

He continued: "I'm now in the second year of a process of trying to totally rebuild my life from a terrible mistake I made. . . . It's been an amazing encounter, you know, trying to rebuild my family life, which is the most important thing of all. And it took a lot of effort that I've never talked about, and probably never will, because I don't really think it's anybody else's concern."

'Evidence That I Need to Be in Church'

The president acknowledged that, immediately after the disclosure of the affair, "there were a few days when I basically was thinking more about what my adversaries were trying to do than what I should be trying to do."

When Hybels said that some people think his church-going "is just an act," Clinton said: "I think I have given evidence that I need to be in church."

And Clinton drew laughter and applause when he described how, as an 11-year-old, he spoke to his grandmother about civil rights and she replied: "You know, Billy, I think you could be a preacher if you were just a little better boy."

He spoke of deep sadness that overtook him early in his presidency over the suicide of his deputy counsel and boyhood friend, Vincent Foster, and the loss of 18 American soldiers in Somalia. "I felt the sickest I have felt since I've been here," he said.

When asked to name the leaders who had the greatest influence on different stages of his life, he listed, in order, his mother, his high school band director and principal, President Kennedy, college professors, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. and Theodore Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela and Yitzhak Rabin, the late Israeli prime minister.

And what will he miss most when he leaves the presidency? The job, he said.

"I love it every day. My biggest problem now is I hate to go to sleep at night. I go to bed and I sit there and I read for hours. I just keep working. I'm trying to get everything done I can do before I leave."

After the interview, he flew to New York to speak at a dinner expected to raise $500,000 for First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate campaign.

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