His State of the Union speech reveals a hugely ambitious man with a bold, if sometimes messy, political style

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While Clinton has made accommodations to his staff's wishes, the staff has also learned to adjust to him. "Rather than fighting it," explained an official, "we realized we ought to be figuring out a way to make it work." First staff members placed a four-layered team of personal minders on Clinton to keep him on schedule. Next they moved many of his public events out of the Oval Office and the Roosevelt Room, where he was inclined toward harmful kibitzing, and into more formal settings in the East Room and Rose Garden. "When he stands up," noted an official, "he's more careful about what he says. When he sits down, he just talks more."

Many White House officials insist that in recent weeks they have tried to exclude Clinton from policy discussions until consensus has been reached, or at least glimpsed. Last month Clinton was simply presented with a task-force report on Superfund reauthorization, rather than engaging 20 experts on the matter. He attended a much smaller number of meetings on the 1995 budget than he did on 1994's a year ago, delegating greater authority and suffering many fewer leaks. "We're getting much better at diverting information from him," said an official. But others dispute these claims, saying little has changed. Last week a decision about whether to grant a visa to I.R.A. leader Gerry Adams was bumped up to Clinton when it might easily have been decided at lower levels. "There's been modest improvement, but I wouldn't make too much of it. We have a hard time deciding what not to take to him because he wants to do everything," says a senior official.

The most significant advance in Clinton management came when his aides carved out three hours of "private time" late each afternoon. During this unstructured segment, he can read, write, nap or hit the putting green on the South Lawn -- anything but go to meetings. Clinton aides talk about this invention in much the same way pediatricians talk about behavior incentives for three-year-olds. "It's like a reward at the end of the day," said an official, "for all the disciplined time he's put in. He feels very trapped here, and so you have to find ways to allow him to feel untrapped." Clinton feels so physically isolated at the White House that he slipped out of the compound, accompanied by Secret Service agents but undetected by reporters, five or six times last year. (Hillary Clinton does the same, but more often and usually in disguise.)

Most important, the afternoon free time has given Clinton a chance to do what White House officials call "processing and synthesizing" the data he is constantly gathering on big decisions. Clinton, they say, needs to "internalize" important decisions, putting together policy proposals, ideas, opinion polls, advice from aides, views of outside experts and comments from everyday people in a kind of cerebral Mixmaster. "Early on, no one understood this," says a veteran of Clinton's campaign. "But a whole lot of things have to happen before it becomes his policy. He needs to think that he has been through a thorough analysis. He has to hear the good options, the bad options, the difficult options, the crazy ideas and the traditional ideas, so that by the time he makes his case to the American people, he knows it fully, he's internalized it."

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