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Clinton memos offer glimpse of angst after ’94 losses to GOP

WASHINGTON — In the darkest days of Bill Clinton’s presidency, just after voters repudiated him by handing control of Congress to Republicans in the 1994 midterm elections, the politically wounded chief executive and his team prepared a speech in hopes of getting him back on his feet and salvaging his administration. His aides were not impressed.

“The president shouldn’t whine, he should lead,” wrote one. “This speech is a downer at a holiday,” concluded a second. “Too apologetic and mealy-mouthed,” feeding a perception of a president “lacking backbone, vacillating, being too eager to please,” warned a third. Paul Begala, Clinton’s tart Texan adviser, objected to “the president making fun” of what he called an “ass-whipping” or “suggesting it was because of him we got creamed.”

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The series of angst-ridden memos released Friday provided another glimpse into a presidency in crisis, one that 20 years later has echoes in another Democratic president’s struggles with low poll numbers and opposition lawmakers.

The Clinton-era memos were among about 4,000 pages of documents made public by the National Archives as part of a broader release of as many as 33,000 pages over the course of several weeks.

The papers capture the highs and lows of the Clinton presidency and plenty in between. They underscore the wariness inside the White House over a popular general named Colin L. Powell and the reluctance of a Texas governor named George W. Bush to appear with the president.

The memos also document discontent with the “venom” of critical journalists, early struggles with terrorism, and nervousness about civil rights for gay people.

There is little new in these papers about Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose own presidential aspirations now dominate the political landscape. But a memo from Begala on the morning of the 1996 State of the Union address serves as a reminder of the scandals and criticism that troubled her in that era.

“It’s imperative that the president defend the honor of the first lady tonight, with the whole country watching,” Begala said.

“The Republicans are attacking her without compunction,” he added, “in part because they know the Democrats are too” cowardly “to retaliate.” Bill Clinton did not take the advice.

Some of the most intriguing material is about the events of 1994, the crucible year of the Clinton administration.

The president saw the posterior-kicking to come. “You’ve got Republicans running like a house afire all over the country and running against me and saying that Washington has too much government and taxes and too little morality,” he railed to aides during an August 1994 speech prep session that was transcribed.

“They have lots of energy,” he added, while Democrats “were lethargic and our base didn’t turn out” in primaries. He went on to say that his message was not sharp enough. “We’re out of position on this government rhetoric deal,” he said. “What’s our story line?” He added, “It’s astonishing how much we’ve done. But we lose the story line and we don’t have anybody else out there helping us with it.”

The files hint at the terrorism to come. One memo warned that another bombing on US troops in Saudi Arabia — after the attack on the Khobar Towers housing complex in 1996 — would “be considered politically unacceptable.”

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