DESPITE nagging problems, the president, at year's end, doesn't appear to have lost the spring in his step. Journalists waiting in line to shake President Clinton's hand at his Christmas party were speculating that this year the president might well look a bit troubled, certainly somewhat preoccupied.
Indeed, at one point the receiving line was held up for a half hour with the word being passed back to us that the president had gone to a phone for a budget-related conversation with Gingrich and Dole. But when we finally reached the front of the line, we found an ebullient Clinton.
Doubtless he was covering up his cares. I've found through years of attending press parties, going back to the days of Lyndon Johnson, that you can tell something by the way the presidents look and act on these occasions. With Vietnam's problems on Johnson's mind and both Vietnam and Watergate weighing Nixon down, they both had become grumpy - or sometimes "no shows."
I particularly remember the demeanor of Jimmy Carter at his Christmas party in 1979. His big smile seemed forced. Just before our handshake I heard Rosalynn Carter whisper angrily to her husband, as she pointed to the New York political writer who had preceded me, "That's the fellow who is always giving you such a hard time." Their greeting to me was warm enough. But you could see that the Carters were feeling the heat in the kitchen.
At that time Mr. Carter was beginning to sniff the bad news: that he very likely would be a one-term president because much of his own party was going to reject him. From the outset of his administration, Carter had been spurned by the liberal, Kennedy wing of the party. Now Teddy Kennedy was going to challenge him in the primaries. Carter foresaw a divisive battle that would so weaken him he wouldn't be able to put up an effective fight in the general election.
But why was Mr. Clinton smiling the other night? The Whitewater probe was bearing down on him and his wife. The budget battle was getting bloody. And he had committed US troops to involvement in a venture that the majority of Americans opposed.
Well, I think that Clinton has little trouble being the happy fellow at what should be a happy gathering. But the reason, too, that he genuinely was able to have a good time in the face of a lot of adversity is that he has been given something big, let's call it a Big Gift: He's going to have clear sailing for the nomination. No one is going to challenge him in the primaries. This means he will be able to concentrate all of his politically related energy - and political finances, too - on the general election.
Clinton has to be letting out a sigh of relief. Only six months or so ago it seemed certain that someone in his party would take him on - and, perhaps, even beat him. There was a lot of talk of Bill Bradley doing it. After thinking it over, Bradley said "no." Some other Democratic possibilities declined the opportunity.
Then Clinton received another gift. Colin Powell decided against running as a Republican. Clinton knew that General Powell would have been the most formidable opponent the Republicans could put up, someone who might well beat him. Aides in Clinton's camp denied that they and the president were rejoicing when Powell dropped out as a possible opponent. But they were rejoicing.
No Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has been elected for a second term. Two of these four Democratic chief executives, Johnson and Carter, were hurt by Democratic challengers. But Clinton is getting a free ride. Perhaps this will be what it takes to reelect a Democrat. That's what I think Clinton is chuckling to himself about these days.
With Whitewater, the budget battle, and troops in Bosnia, why was Clinton smiling the other night?