WASHINGTON — The day-to-day revelations of possible past campaign fund-raising irregularities at the White House are impairing President Clinton's ability to communicate through the press - and may threaten some of his agenda on Capitol Hill.
Though the story seems to be generating little interest or concern outside the beltway - one local talk-radio host here says callers are crying "enough already" - the obsession with the scandal in Washington is sapping some of the momentum Mr. Clinton built up after the inauguration and State of the Union address.
"There are some legitimate questions here, but there is a feeding frenzy," says Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, recently named co-chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Mr. Romer admits "the problem has been brought about in part by a lack of candidness, but, yeah, this is a feeding frenzy" too.
Certainly, the revelations have produced no lack of interest in official Washington. In just the past two weeks, The Washington Post has printed nearly 70 articles on the issue. Toney diners buzz over breaking developments.
Sunday morning news programs look for meaning after each revelation. More than a dozen of the 15 questions put to Clinton at his Friday press conference centered on the elaborate details of the Democrats' fund-raising practices and the use of the White House to that end.
"The obsession level with the story here in Washington is around Defcon 3 ... pretty high," says White House spokeswoman Mary Ellen Glynn. Only when Clinton travels outside Washington, as he did to Michigan last week, is he able to punch his message through the veil of fund-raising coverage. "In Michigan, reporters were asking about other issues," says Ms. Glynn. "He is better able to get his message across outside the beltway."
Clinton's own accounting
The president gave his most detailed account to date Friday on the range of issues involving the propriety of using the White House for coffees, opening the Lincoln bedroom to contributors, and the DNC's acceptance of contributions from questionable donors.
Clinton implied that mistakes had been made and lapses in judgment had occurred, and that the policies which created those errors had been redefined. But by and large he defended his actions and those of his party. The president even refused to rule out the possibility that he personally had made fund-raising calls from the White House. "I can't say, over all the hundreds and hundreds and maybe thousands of phone calls I've made, that I've never done it," Clinton said.
In some of his responses, the president struck almost a reflective tone, marking a clear shift in his public discourse on the issue - one that indicates he is settling in to ride out the story. "I have a different take on some of this than you do" he told reporters. "And I am, as I said, I want to take personal responsibility for this."
Despite all the press coverage of campaign-finance practices, Clinton's approval ratings remain in the 60 percent range - far higher than his first-term rating. He has also prevailed on some key issues with Congress, such as turning back the move for a balanced budget amendment. But as the scrutiny continues, Clinton may lose traction on other issues, such as the current budget negotiations.
Critics, however, say much of the preoccupation with White House fund-raising is justified.
"There is still a lot of head-shaking going on out there," says William Bennett, conservative author and co-chair of Empower America, speaking of America beyond the beltway. "This thing will have staying power. ... It's too soon to know what will stick. But when it has a picture, it sticks in the mind - like the image of all these cats rolling in and out of the Lincoln bedroom," he says.
The intensity of interest shows no sign of letting up soon. "It's the story here in Washington," says Diane Rehm, host of a nationally syndicated talk radio program. "This story has ignited in ways I haven't seen in a long time. I think everybody is disgusted all the way around, but here in Washington there is an outpouring of indignation.... But there has been interest in creating a huge story, and I don't think it has worked."