Turning Clinton Green

BILL CLINTON KNOWS THAT GREEN sells. He celebrated the Fourth of July by helping launch Freedom, a bald eagle recently recovered from a broken wing, back into the wilds of southern Maryland. ""Beautiful, fabulous,'' the president exclaimed to the cameras as Freedom flapped off. Never mind that a pair of fish hawks attacked Freedom while Clinton was holding forth (downed in the water, the eagle was rescued by the coast guard and sent back to rehab). Extolling ""the freedom to breathe clean air, drink safe water and pass a safe world to our children,'' the president seized the chance to identify himself with the environment.

Green wasn't always golden at the White House. After the GOP sweep in 1994, enviro-bashing was respectable in the West Wing. ""There's a f-ing rat in California that's going to cost us the election,'' chief of staff Leon Panetta carped about an unwelcome federal ruling to protect a field mouse called the kangaroo rat. (Panetta denies the quote.) But NEWSWEEK has reconstructed how obsessive polling, GOP blunders and Al Gore's inside moves turned the presi- dent into the environment's new best friend.

It began with a vice presidential Christmas party. In December 1994 Gore, the White House's chief environmental cheerleader, didn't have much to celebrate. Clinton had already enraged activists with flip-flops on fuel efficiency, mining reform and grazing on public lands. Now, with the victorious GOP hostile to regulation, Clinton was worried that getting close to the greens would make him look too liberal.

During the holiday party at Gore's house, the vice president pulled aside the leaders of the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club and other groups. He laid out a plan: sweep up every bit of polling data indicating that the environment can be good politics. The report Gore received a few months later showed that while the public had limited patience with protecting kangaroo rats at the expense of development, voters overwhelmingly wanted the Feds to hold the line on clean air and water.

The environmentalists began opening back channels to Clinton. When the Sier- ra Club wanted to produce an anti-GOP television spot, it hired John Franzen, a consultant who also happens to be a close friend of Panetta's. In early 1995 the En- vironmental Information Center paid a Democratic pollster, Mark Mellman, to gauge the greens' support. He found that voters were interested in reducing red tape -- but to expedite punishing polluters, not to undercut enforcing environmental laws. Mellman gave the data to Democratic Chairman Chris Dodd, who excitedly called Clinton that night.

Activists also got to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. In urgent memos in the spring of '95, Babbitt's staff urged him to pummel Republicans for proposing to weaken the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. So Babbitt launched a ""National Heritage Van Tour'' to generate heavy local media coverage. Each day, Interior aides sent the stories and videos to the White House. ""You can't believe the press I'm getting,'' Babbitt told Clinton. The president, who at the time was devouring any good news he could find, believed. ""Oh, I know,'' Clinton answered. ""I see your clips every day.''

Meanwhile, Gore played the inside game. When Clinton would rehearse answers to questions and mention his commitment to the elderly and to the middle class, a top aide said, ""Gore would always say, "and to protect the environment!' Clinton would laugh and say "and to protect the environment.' It was a standard part of their little routine.'' Some greens saw Dick Morris, Clinton's moderate numbers-crunching guru, as the enemy. But in his last private job, for the Virginia Environmental Endowment, Morris found that suburban Republican women were deeply disturbed by the GOP's environmental cuts. At a meeting in the fall of 1995, Clinton referred to Morris's data. Gore leaned over to one activist and said: ""That was the key piece of evidence.''

One critical element was Bob Dole. In focus groups, Clintonites found that the is- sue subtly underscored Dole's age. ""Baby boomers think they had to persuade their parents to care about the environment,'' said one Democratic pollster. ""Dole is their parents, or maybe their grandparents.'' Republicans do focus groups, too, and the party's worried. One House GOP memo blamed ""the environmentalist lobby and their extremist friends in the eco-terrorist underworld'' for portraying Republicans as villains. One counterstrategy: hand out tree saplings door to door. But at this point it'll take more than souvenirs to catch Clinton.