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At White House Coffees, Ideas Also Changed Hands

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine yourself at the White House gabbing with the president of the United States, who is looking you in the eye and furiously scribbling notes as you offer opinions about everything from tax policy to highway repair.

It’s heady stuff and it’s exactly the way many of the hundreds of Democratic Party contributors describe what happened at the now notorious White House coffee klatches that they attended last year and the year before.

“He is a great listener,” recalled William D. Rollnick, a retired executive from South Florida. “You feel like, wow, he may not use anything with my opinion but at least he is writing it down.”

Clinton’s critics, pointing to the $27 million contributed to the Democratic Party over the last two years by the 900 guests at the coffee klatches, protest that the events allowed the president to exploit access to the White House to cultivate political donors. Clinton’s allies call them politics as usual.

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But no one disputes that in such close encounters Clinton exudes a personal charm that makes his listeners open their hearts and their wallets.

Clinton routinely dazzled guests with displays of empathy, of attentiveness, of interest and concern, according to witnesses.

Moreover, the receptions had a large impact on the president, aides said, furnishing him with ideas and also enabling him to transcend the isolation of the Oval Office. Although some view Clinton’s social prowess as a calculated performance, admirers said that his interest in regular folks goes to the very core of his psyche.

“I think the people side of politics is essential to understanding his being,” maintained one White House aide. “It’s very much the essence of his soul.”

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Fund-raising was not the only goal of the 103 coffees between January 1995 and August 1996. At some of the receptions, donors mingled alongside political activists. At others, the only guests were activists and elected officials with whom the White House desired warm relations.

Typically, the president kicked off the get-togethers with a few minutes of remarks, recalled Harold M. Ickes, the former deputy White House chief of staff who attended about 20 of them.

“He would talk about what is going on in the budget battle, what is going on in the Medicare debate, what is going on in salvage timber sales. Whatever is . . . hot on the griddle that day, week, or what have you,” said Ickes, who remains a White House consultant.

When Clinton finished, “every person there would have his or her crack at the president,” Ickes continued. “Some people made statements to which the president would respond. And most people asked questions or a combination of a statement and question.

“And the president would typically engage them in a discussion of whatever issues they were talking about. They ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime to the profound.”

Guests could not help but be flattered by the undivided attention of the president of the United States. Ickes maintained that the displays of personal interest were no act: “I’ve heard him, out of virtually every meeting, say to me as we walked back over to the Oval Office: ‘Harold, there was a good idea there. We ought to follow up with that guy. There’s a kernel of an idea there.’ That’s Clinton.”

As guests themselves attested, the president made a lasting impact. A New York investment manager, who asked not to be named, recalled the thrill of attending a White House get-together last March in the Map Room, where Franklin D. Roosevelt had tracked the progress of World War II.

Clinton listened as the investor complained that corporations could bestow lavish benefits on departing executives but dump the rank-and-file with no reward at all during downsizing. That night, the man, a Democratic Party contributor, proudly told his two daughters: “Your daddy talked to the president of the United States today.”

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At a separate meeting, Rollnick, the Floridian, recalled that he chatted with Clinton about “infrastructure, more roads, rebuilding, schools, plants for economic zones, airports.” His wife, Rollnick said, talked about the environment and bipartisanship.

The president “was in no rush,” Rollnick said. “When he got there, it was not ‘Get it over with.’ Even afterward, when it was over, he hung around and we talked more while we were standing.”

Ickes agreed that Clinton displayed enormous interest in the various matters his guests might bring up. Not that every comment was scintillating.

“There’s no question that there were statements and questions that he had heard 100 times before,” Ickes said. “You would never know it. It was extraordinary. Never short, never curt, never a give-me-a-break look on his face. [He behaved] with patience and understanding and enthusiasm.”

To be sure, the president’s drive to connect with his audience sometimes boomerangs, on occasion feeding an impression that he is quick to waver on important issues.

A classic example came one night in late 1995, when a weary Clinton let slip to a crowd of affluent Texans: “Probably there are people in this room still mad at me at that [1993] budget because you think I raised your taxes too much. It might surprise you to know that I think I raised them too much, too.”

That remark enraged Democrats who had stuck by Clinton’s plan and delighted Republican conservatives who gleefully proclaimed the president had seen the light on tax policy. Clinton ultimately had to clarify the comment, saying that he did not enjoy raising taxes but that he still backed his own plan.

The White House receptions also have been the source of some embarrassment. Administration officials cringed at reports that a Chinese arms dealer and a convicted stock promoter with possible ties to organized crime were among those whose names were supplied to the White House by Democratic officials for attendance at the coffees.

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Despite such missteps, Clinton generally has defended the White House coffees as a valuable way to learn what is on people’s minds, and he has vowed to continue them.

“I think the president should keep in touch with people,” Clinton declared at a press conference last month. “I think he should listen to people. I never learn very much when I’m talking and I normally learn something when I’m listening, so I think that they’re good.”

In a similar vein, White House strategists said that they believe Clinton can benefit in his second term by keeping in closer touch with his allies and adversaries in Washington. Last week, for example, Clinton invited a group of senior Senate Democrats to the White House.

“At the end of the day, there are these factors of policy positions, personal relations and the politics that surround them,” an administration aide said, reeling off the elements that determine success or failure in the battleground of Washington. “The more you can nurture better working relationships, the more likely you are going to succeed.”

Times staff writers Glenn Bunting and Alan C. Miller contributed to this story.


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