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Clinton Vacation Produces Plan To Rejuvenate Ailing Presidency

By Ceci Connolly
The Washington Post
EDGARTOWN

It was, by all accounts, a most peculiar sojourn for President Clinton. Thirteen days, ending Sunday, on scenic Martha's Vineyard with not a swing of the golf club, minimal hobnobbing with the island socialites and admittedly chilly relations with his wife.

But if it was not an altogether fun summer vacation for the president, the self-imposed exile might have produced some political benefits. Alone in a small guest house here, Clinton sketched in longhand what might be the outlines of a plan to rejuvenate his ailing presidency.

As he described it in an emotional discussion with civil rights leaders Friday, Clinton is grappling with a way to make amends with his family, his aides, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and indeed, the nation.

"All of you know, I'm having to become quite an expert in this business of asking for forgiveness," he said in a speech he wrote. "It gets a little easier the more you do it."

In 20 minutes, with little more than his scribbled notes to guide him, Clinton shed some light on how he hopes to regain his personal and political footing.

He will not apologize, but he will share his pain. He will not divulge details of his extramarital affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, but he concedes he is paying the price of "self-inflicted wounds." And he will continue to count on a healthy economy, the prestige of foreign travel and loyal friends such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and black leaders to buoy him.

The effort begins in earnest Monday with a visit to Herndon, Va., Elementary School before heading to Russia for a summit with President Boris Yeltsin, one of the few politicians who appears to be in more immediate jeopardy than Clinton.

In private, the president has been trying to mend relations with lawmakers who might ultimately control his fate if Starr issues a critical report to Congress, as is widely expected. Some said they were pleased Clinton seemed more cognizant of his foibles this week than when he addressed the Lewinsky matter in a televised speech Aug. 17.

In a limousine ride Thursday, Clinton told Sen. John F. Kerry and Rep. Jim McGovern, both Massachusetts Democrats, that the timing of the Aug. 17 address, just hours after testifying before a grand jury, "was probably not the best," McGovern said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"We both did urge him to say more and to do so when he felt it was appropriate to make any more statements on that issue," said McGovern, who hosted the president in Worcester Thursday.

But critics view much of the past two weeks as classic Clintonian spin - from the whispered tales about familial hostility to the missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan.

The skeptics blanch when Clinton compares himself to South African President Nelson Mandela, the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a man revered for bravery in the civil rights movement. Clinton's critics speculate he is attempting to generate sympathy before any more bad news comes out.

Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., said Clinton's semi-apology from the Vineyard sounded like another lie from a man who has already deceived the public. "The president is putting himself first and the country second," Cox said on CBS's "Face the Nation."