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For Clintons, a Vacation to Savor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The scene became the metaphor for the year to come: the president, his wife and their daughter walking together across the White House South Lawn as they offered an emphatic yet awkward demonstration of unity in the face of private strain and public embarrassment.

The president had just testified before a grand jury about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky and had acknowledged its outlines in a televised speech to the nation. The vacation on which they had then embarked, his spokesman said, was all about private healing.

This year it is about money. It is about looking to the political future. It is about golf. It is about more money. And, finally, it is about sleep.

Both Exhausted After Full Day on Nantucket

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So here is a more private scene from the Clinton presidency, one year later: The president and first lady, at the end of a full day spent on Nantucket Island, fall fast asleep five minutes after Air Force One takes off for the 20-minute flight back to Martha’s Vineyard.

The Clinton presidency, labeled by tart-tongued commentators as a national soap opera, has certainly been one of drama and many acts: the opening focus on the economy, the shock of the Republican triumph in the 1994 congressional elections, the landslide return to office in 1996, the depths of impeachment, and, now, a concerted effort to cement a legacy of social change and to elect First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Senate and Vice President Al Gore to the White House.

The annual summer vacation is but one scene, and this year’s plot revolves around fund-raising: Friday on Nantucket, Sunday and Monday on Martha’s Vineyard, and later in New York. The causes are a hospital on Martha’s Vineyard, peace in Northern Ireland, Democrats in general, and now, Hillary Clinton in particular.

Later in the week, White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said, the president may pick up some paperwork related to likely budget battles with Congress in September and October. But for now, no serious work--beyond the fund-raising--is contemplated. And no senior staff members other than Lockhart have accompanied the president here.

So, the Clintons spent Saturday ensconced at a borrowed waterside estate. On Friday, he played what he admitted was the particularly tough Nantucket Golf Course, shooting a 90, six strokes over his handicap, in an experience he called “a character builder.” She took part in a Nantucket building conservation program. And the two of them were the draw at two fund-raising parties, the second of which boosted her political fortunes by about $100,000.

It’s all a warmup for a Democratic Party fund-raiser next weekend in East Hampton, N.Y., the tony tip-of-Long Island playground for some of New York’s and Hollywood’s wealthiest figures.

The vacation has even allowed the president to reminisce about the past as he thinks about his wife’s possible future in the Senate.

In some of his most animated, semipublic comments on just why he finds himself raising money now for his wife, the president said Friday night in Nantucket that when he became president, he told her he wanted her to decide what she would do when he left office.

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“For 20 years we’ve gone where I wanted to go and done what I wanted to do, and I’ll give you the next 20 years. And if I’m still alive after that, we’ll fight over the rest,” he said he told her.

As though to answer Republicans’ complaints that Hillary Clinton, a child of Illinois and a voter in Arkansas, is a carpetbagger in New York, the president told the story of how he met her at Yale Law School in Connecticut.

After spying her in a class, he said, he debated whether to introduce himself. He then launched a confessional commentary that would have been unimaginable a year ago.

“I kind of stalked her around the law school for two or three weeks, and I’d get up and I’d say, no, this is nothing but trouble, and I would walk off,” he said. Then one night in the library, she at one end of the room, he at another, she slams down her book, “walks across the library, and she looks at me and says, ‘Look, you have been staring at me for weeks, and I’ve been staring back. So at least we ought to know each other’s name. I’m Hillary Rodham. What’s your name?’ ”

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“I couldn’t remember my name,” the president said. “Now, question No. 1, this woman has initiative--good in a senator.”

Second, he said, after they had been together two years in law school, she moved to Massachusetts to work for the Children’s Defense Fund, and he wanted her to go to New York or home to Chicago “because I thought she had such enormous potential for public service.”

Well, actually, he said, “I wanted her to go with me. But I was so afraid I was, in effect, taking away from her life and from this country the most gifted person I had ever known up to that time.”

“And so all she is really doing today is what I thought, for the benefit of the country and for the development of her own potential for service, maybe she should have been able to do in 1973.” He added: “I’m very glad she didn’t do it then, and very glad she is doing it today.”

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Last Year, Scandal and Foreign Crises

Even without the Lewinsky scandal, the time spent on Martha’s Vineyard last year would easily count as the vacation from hell.

It began with U.S. attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan in response to the terrorist bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. There was speculation that Clinton was waging war to distract the public from the Lewinsky scandal. And the vacation ended with the Russian economy in a meltdown.

Even if he was inclined, Clinton found little time for his conventional vacation pursuits: golf, shopping and ice cream. (On his 1997 vacation, he displayed a relatively svelte figure on the golf course, bringing much comment about his loss of a few pounds, but that’s another matter.)

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And so, a year after his departure for Martha’s Vineyard presented the searing image of a family in pain, Clinton evinced the demeanor of a man on the comfortable cusp of a welcome getaway.

Even before Air Force One had left the runway at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington to head north, he appeared in the press cabin and asked his fellow travelers: “Hey, guys, are we going to have a good time?”

He left little doubt about his intended answer.


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