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The White House Adrift

The staff pleads incompetence over the wayward videos. But is the president even paying attention?

Time cover

By James Carney

(TIME October 20) -- The scariest part about working for Bill Clinton used to be his "purple rages"--violent bursts of room-shaking anger that could drain the blood from the face of even the most confident aide. Back then, Clinton's emotional engagement in his presidency could be measured by the intensity of his hair-trigger temper.

Which is why his response to the latest White House blunder says so much about Bill Clinton's presidency now. Four years ago, a staff member would rather have resigned than be the one to tell the boss about the ill-timed release of the videotapes made of Clinton's coffees with big-money donors. Yet when deputy White House counsel Cheryl Mills brought him the news, first disclosed by TIME, Clinton responded in private much as he did last week in public: with frustration, but also with fatalistic detachment. "He doesn't do the big temper tantrum as much as he used to," says a senior White House official. "The undisciplined Bill Clinton of the past would be obsessed with this videotape business. Now he doesn't let things like that preoccupy him."

That might be a relief if it also didn't reflect something more troubling: a White House without energy and a sense of purpose. Clinton's 1997 has been slow off the ground. His initiatives on race and volunteerism have fizzled from lack of follow-up. His push to improve public education has lacked ambition: Administration officials admit they made standardized tests the centerpiece of their plan not because anyone thinks they are the most vital improvement but because they are the least expensive. And the President's current efforts to bolster his trade-negotiating authority may have come too late to save the legislation. Even the balanced-budget deal was more an item off the President's 1995 and 1996 checklists than a postelection new idea. Yet since midsummer, White House aides have been saying not to expect a new agenda from Clinton until his next State of the Union address in January. "We're still not sure what a post-balanced-budget world looks like," laments one.

For a President fast closing in on lameduck status, six months is a long time to spend on forging a legacy. But Clinton's mind is elsewhere. He no longer sits in on lengthy policy bull sessions with his advisers, and he has stopped reading about new developments in the various investigations and lawsuits that nip at his Administration, preferring the occasional briefing instead. Since recovering from his knee injury, he has taken to playing golf not just on weekends, but on workday afternoons. White House press secretary Mike McCurry praises the President's newfound balance between work and leisure, and insists Clinton's hours on the fairways provide important "think time." Says another top adviser: "No one can ever accuse this President of keeping Ronald Reagan hours."

But even if the President shows no signs of turning into a tee-timing Ike or a napping Gipper, his White House remains strangely paralyzed. Its staff has been preoccupied for quite some time with the impending departure of some key players. Chief of staff Erskine Bowles has made no secret of his desire to return home to North Carolina, but the search for his successor has dragged on since spring. Frank Raines, the Budget Director, pre-emptively took his name out of the running, but Clinton is said to be pressing him to reconsider. Meanwhile, a President whose team has already lost the intellectual energy and political acumen of such first-term stars as George Stephanopoulos, Harold Ickes, Don Baer and, yes, Dick Morris is facing another wave of retirements. Among those polishing their resumes include spokesman McCurry, counselor Doug Sosnik and, if he doesn't get Bowles' job, chief lobbyist John Hilley.

Challenges loom: a child-care conference, a summit on global warming, maybe even Social Security reform. But what best mobilizes this White House is a purely political fight, preferably a campaign. Which is why many members of the President's top staff quickly volunteered to rush across the street when Al Gore needed help explaining his role in the campaign fund-raising mess. "Having an election out there gives people a cause," says a White House official. In a White House addicted to campaigning, the Vice President is the employer of choice.

The young Arkansas Governor who once promised "change vs. more of the same" now carefully guards the status quo. As long as the economy remains buoyant, so too will Clinton's poll numbers. Though hardly an objective observer, Speaker Newt Gingrich has a point when he accuses the President of dedicating his second term to the sole purpose of conserving his popularity. It's a shield against headlines like the ones last week over the missing videotapes. No wonder he is loath to risk it.





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