Clinton's first stand

March 24, 1993

Why-ever was Bill Clinton ducking press conferences? Th guy is terrific at the medium. He is the best informed president since Richard Nixon, and the most comfortable in give-and-take since John Kennedy. He has as many facts stuffed in his head as Jimmy Carter but is less stiff in putting them out. He has nothing to worry about.

Presumably, advisers kept him from the press for the first two months of the presidency so they and not the press could decide what the press puts headlines over. But the president owes the American people an accounting. And though the Anglophile Mr. Clinton has suggested he might innovate something modeled on British House of Commons question time, he has not done so, and the press conference is the American way.

An intrusive world, not the press, keeps the president from dictating the subject matter. He wanted his statement on the economy to be uppermost, boosting his economic plan and pressuring the Senate to follow the House of Representatives in adopting it. But he also knew better. And so Mr. Clinton devoted much of his prepared statement to American support for constitutional processes in Russia, and therefore for President Boris Yeltsin's plan for an April 25 referendum.

And, in tribute to Mr. Clinton's skill or preparedness -- the two are nearly the same -- his most considered statement came seemingly off the cuff in answer to a question: "The United States has three interests in our cooperation with Russia. One is to make the world a safer place, continue to reduce the threat of nuclear war and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Two is to support the development of democracy and freedom for the people of Russia -- it is a vast and great country -- and indeed for all of the Commonwealth of Independent States. And three is to support the development of a market economy." Yes, he is for Mr. Yeltsin, and as more than a bystander, but policy, not personality, dictates the reasons.

Mr. Clinton's equivocal answer about the armed services' resistance to accepting gays probably satisfies neither constituency, military or gay. But he deserves to be put on the spot about it. Having introduced it as an election issue, he is going to have to resolve it.

On Supreme Court selection, Mr. Clinton was a little more forthcoming. His game is not to ask how the potential nominee would vote on a case, but to insist on "an attachment to and belief in a strong and broad constitutional right to privacy." More important, when challenged to commit himself to diversity on the court, he pointedly omitted doing so and committed himself only to "someone I think will be a great justice."

You are not supposed to like everything he said, but Bill Clinton sounded presidential and clarified his policies on a number of points. He ought to do this more often.

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