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Clinton Takes Break, Seeks Second Wind

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For President Clinton, who began his overdue vacation Saturday with a golf outing, his second summer trip to the island of Martha’s Vineyard has the air of a second try.

White House aides say Clinton hopes to relax, of course--the President recently joked that he would like to score 80 on the golf course before he turns 50--but that he also hopes a dozen days at the beach will allow him to refocus his presidency and figure out how better to communicate its purpose to Americans.

Unfortunately for Clinton, those laudable goals are precisely the ones his aides said he attempted to achieve--and at the time claimed he had succeeded in achieving--during last year’s vacation on the island.

Indeed, Clinton has traveled something of a full circle since his last time here. He arrived a year ago battered nearly to the breaking point by the suicide of his friend and lawyer Vincent Foster, the bitterly partisan--although ultimately successful--battle over his budget plan, and a sickening drop in poll ratings that eliminated the cushion of good feeling he had enjoyed after first taking office.

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After a week and a half of swimming, golfing and dining with the island’s well-known, well-heeled, but heavily Democratic upper crust, he left rejuvenated and convinced that he finally understood much of what had caused his presidency to seemingly go off track.

In subsequent months, Clinton had his most successful season in office, winning a major congressional victory on the NAFTA trade pact, successfully handling an economic summit with Asian leaders, delivering several well-received speeches, and rising back up in poll-measured public esteem.

Then the cycle started all over again: the Whitewater controversy, Paula Corbin Jones, health care, the crime bill--the now-familiar litany of struggles dragged Clinton back down. So here he is once more, trying to figure out, as he put it in his weekly radio address Saturday, how to “get past the partisan static.”

Aides and others who have spoken with Clinton say he is less bitter and depressed about the state of his presidency than he was last summer. None of Clinton’s recent public speeches have matched the angry and sometimes self-pitying tone of the address he made to the nation’s governors just before his vacation last year.

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“In the last few weeks, he’s been in quite a reflective state of mind,” said Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers. “He’s thinking about what he can do” to reduce the level of partisanship that has endangered his legislative program, she added.

Washington’s partisan battles remain “frustrating” to Clinton, Myers said, “but it doesn’t come as a surprise anymore.”

Others who have spoken with Clinton recently describe him as at least outwardly upbeat and optimistic. They say he admits that he is tired and that he has burned out his staff during the last several months, but that he is still convinced he is slowly making progress toward his goals and that, in the end, the public will come to understand that.

Indeed, the notion that the real problem is that the public does not really understand what he is trying to do, that his message has been blocked by partisan attacks from Republicans, overly critical reporting from the press and events he could not control, has become a recurring theme for Clinton and, even more, for his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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Both the President and First Lady insist that Americans would support their goals if only they understood them better, and that their main problem is to figure out how better to communicate.

Whether that notion is true, of course, remains debatable. Polls and voter interviews show that the public tends to have only a vague and somewhat suspicious notion of what officials in Washington are up to. But neither Clinton nor any other Democrat has yet figured out a way to convince Americans to lower their skepticism, and once again accept the sort of activist government that he preaches.

Of course, Clinton is not spending his entire vacation, or even the largest part of it, brooding over his future. After arriving here late Friday and greeting a friendly crowd at the airport, he was up early Saturday, taking a morning jog through the woods near the home where he, his wife and daughter, Chelsea, are staying.

The compound, next to beaches on Oyster Pond and the Atlantic, includes a converted 19th-Century farmhouse and guest house, flanked by a tennis court and a pasture for four horses. It is the home of Richard Friedman, a Boston developer and a prominent Democratic fund-raiser who has provided the house to the First Family for free.

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The President and Hillary Clinton are staying in the guest house, while Chelsea Clinton and a friend from school stay in the main house with the resident staff, White House officials said.

From there, it was off to the golf course Saturday, where Clinton made a good start toward his 80-stroke goal, shooting 39 over the first nine holes--actually 40 counting a mulligan (free tee drive) on the first hole.

Clad in black shorts and shirt and a bright white baseball cap, Clinton golfed in a foursome that included his friend, Vernon E. Jordan Jr., a Washington lawyer and lobbyist; producer-director George Stevens; and Warren Buffett, the investor and financier. Accompanying the party in a separate foursome were Microsoft founder Bill Gates Jr., his father and wife, and Jordan’s wife, Ann.

“It feels good,” Clinton told reporters at the 10th hole, “I’m not sure it’s real yet.”

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Staff writer John M. Broder in Washington contributed to this story.


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