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Peek into Clinton's weekly brain trust

They are like no other meetings in the Clinton White House. One night a week, the president, the vice president and their closest political advisers gather in the family quarters. As if following precise protocol for a superpower summit, participants take regular seats. To make sure no one gets distracted, food is forbidden.

Some of the two dozen or so who attend are intimate friends; others are political enemies. Often the sessions are tense. But when they assemble in the ornate Yellow Oval Room, the participants try to put aside rivalries as they pursue the goal of making sure Bill Clinton is re-elected in November.

The meetings are the center of gravity for Clinton's campaign _ and for his administration. They epitomize the workings of the Clinton White House and its exceptional integration of government and politics.

That these confidential meetings take place has been known. But this is the first time details of the sessions _ including the cast of attendees _ have been divulged.

In the Clinton White House, formal Cabinet sessions are hit-and-miss affairs; months sometimes go by before Clinton holds them. But these political meetings are so integral to the administration that the president went ahead with last week's political round table on Thursday even amid the turmoil over the explosion of TWA Flight 800 the night before.

At these sessions Clinton and his advisers always pore over poll results from the week before, fiddle with their new television commercials, but also, on a broader level, exchange ideas about the president's message of the week _ and how best to counter Bob Dole, the presumed Republican nominee.

Yet what emanates from the gilded armchairs and yellow damask sofas on the second floor of the White House is not always polite. Dick Morris, the president's chief outside strategist, suggested that, as an anti-crime measure, Clinton call for students to be required to wear uniforms for greater harmony. He was laughed at initially, but the president and others subsequently warmed to the idea.

George Stephanopoulos, the president's senior adviser, described the meetings, in a room adorned with Louis XVI-style furniture, as something of an upscale version of the bull sessions that he remembers from the 1992 campaign.

"They're not that different," he said. "They used to be in the basement of the governor's mansion, or in the living room. That's the way the president does it."

But unlike the meetings during the days in Little Rock that were dedicated to the campaign, these gatherings meld government and politics.

They are supposed to take place on Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., but seldom start before 8 p.m. and can be on any day of the week, at the pleasure of the president. They are always long, running more than three hours when the chief executive is in an expansive mood.

They bring together the president, Vice President Al Gore, White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, two politically savvy Cabinet secretaries, representatives from the campaign and the Democratic Party and outside consultants. The meetings even include someone whose post is as ostensibly non-political as that of Samuel Berger, Clinton's deputy national security adviser.

The only power in the White House who is conspicuously absent is Hillary Rodham Clinton.

If she took part, officials said, critics would accuse her of wielding too much influence on the campaign. "No matter what she does," said Michael McCurry, the White House press secretary, "people will characterize her unfairly." (Mrs. Clinton no doubt gets briefed; besides her husband, the meetings are attended by her chief of staff, Maggie Williams.)

"It's a lot more than politics," said Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros, the former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, who has campaign experience of his own. "It's really bringing everything together in order to govern."

No major political decision is made in the Clinton White House or the Democratic Party that has not been first vetted by the group in the Yellow Oval Room.

"No voice is ever crowded out or denigrated," Cisneros said. "But neither does anyone dominate or seek to dominate. There's no obligatory one-upmanship. If you don't say a whole thing in a night, that's okay. It's very disciplined _ and it stays on track because there's a lot of material to cover every session."

Outsiders meet the insiders

Participants call it the "residence meeting," "strategy meeting," or, more simply, the "night meeting." But among Clinton's most intimate confidants, it will always be known as the "Charlie meeting" because they grew out of contacts between the president and Morris.

"Charlie" was Clinton's code name for Morris, his outside strategist. At first the president kept his relationship with Morris secret because the consultant, who has known the president for years, was viewed with suspicion among many Democrats because he has worked so long for Republicans.

His client list included Jesse Helms, the deeply conservative senator from North Carolina. (Some officials explained that the name came from the 1970s TV show Charlie's Angels, which featured Charlie, a faceless boss who dispatched orders from a speaker phone to three female detectives.)

The meetings started in 1994 with Clinton, Morris and a handful of others. While Morris still sits closest to the president, the meetings have more recently swelled into a motley brain trust predominantly of white men, but representing assorted political persuasions. Many of the new participants had pressed for months to be admitted to the exclusive group.

The most obvious division in the room is between what some participants call the "outsiders" and the "insiders."

The outsiders are the consultants such as Morris and his pollsters from New York, Doug Schoen and Mark Penn, while the insiders include Panetta, Stephanopoulos and Harold Ickes, a deputy chief of staff. Morris, a driving force in pulling Clinton to the right politically, has long had a rocky relationship with Ickes, an unabashed liberal.

Clinton listens to the group fight it out and then often waits to make his decisions until a post-mortem with a handful of participants later that night or the next day.

Those at that meeting usually include Gore; Panetta; Stephanopoulos; Ickes; Douglas Sosnik, the White House political director; Peter Knight, the campaign manager, and sometimes Morris.

Getting down to the details

Clinton seems ideally suited for these sessions. Even participants who have known him for years say they are still struck by his grasp of campaign minutiae. "He always knows how many times he's been to a city since he's been president," Stephanopoulos said. "It just always blows me away."

There is a clear rhythm and routine to the sessions. To the amusement of some participants, people claim the same seats week after week, particularly those with the choice spots near the president and vice president.

"It's like a car pool where people have their seats," said Ann Lewis, the deputy manager of the Clinton campaign.

While many participants discussed these meetings in interviews, most did so only on the condition that they not be identified. Several called back after being interviewed, saying they had grown increasingly nervous that the president would single them out for shattering the meetings' confidentiality.

Still, it was possible to glean how the gatherings are structured.

Usually it is Evelyn Lieberman, a deputy White House chief of staff, who senses when Clinton is getting restless _ or needs to get some sleep _ and adjourns the meeting.

But after Clinton left the gathering this past Thursday, some participants reconvened to discuss what some viewed as a new political problem that had arisen: what to do about this article and how the president would react.