WASHINGTON -- President Clinton hardly qualifies as a tough voice from the White House bully pulpit by insisting that he "meant no disrespect" to the Islamic faith in meeting briefly with British author Salman Rushdie, still under a death warrant by the religious leadership of Iran.
Clinton's further explanation that the meeting was arranged by aides "so I could see him and shake hands with him" and that they "visited probably for a couple of minutes" did not have the ring of a Teddy Roosevelt pounding the pulpit and resoundingly defending the right of Rushdie -- and all writers -- to publish without fear of physical harm from state terrorism.
The president observed instead that he respects the religion, culture and practitioners of Islam but thinks it "important that here in the United States we reaffirm our commitment to protecting the physical well-being and the right to speak of those dTC with whom we may intensely disagree," and that he hopes "I will not be misunderstood."
Clinton's response came in the wake of a speech by a high Iranian and Islamic official that the president had made himself "the most hated person before all Muslims of the world" by receiving Rushdie, still a hunted man after nearly five years for observations in his book, "Satanic Verses." But that blast at an American president was, after all, par for the course from officials who have customarily referred to the United States as "the Great Satan."
Until Clinton uttered his wholly unnecessary "clarification," his decision to meet Rushdie was seen as an unmistakably clear defense not only of Rushdie the author but of the right of free expression in the civilized world. The president seemed to understand as he hadn't in the past the immense opportunity at his disposal for preaching moral as well as political principles from the Oval Office pulpit.
All things being relative, Clinton's meeting, however brief, and his subsequent comments were a huge improvement over the shameless refusal of his predecessor, George Bush, to receive Rushdie at all. As the author himself has underscored in observations in public between periods of hiding out, what is at stake in the "fatwa" death sentence placed on him by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is more than his own life.
For Rushdie's part, he has chosen to take the Clinton gesture as "the most important moment of the campaign" he has waged to muster international governmental support for the principle of free speech jeopardized by the death warrant against him, and the necessity it has imposed on him to lead a life in hiding.
In a television talk with British interviewer David Frost, Rushdie called the Clinton meeting "a huge public affirmation of America's support as a nation and as an administration" and "the most powerful turn of the screw" that could be applied to Iranian authorities behind the death order.
Clinton told him, he said, "that he hoped that this meeting would send round the world . . . the importance that America places on First Amendment rights and those kinds of rights being developed in countries around the world. So clearly it was an international message of a very American commitment."
Also discussed, he said, was "the importance of fighting state terrorism. . . . It's clearly not just about me. . . . I think the American government is very well aware that many American citizens are at risk in the world."
Clinton acknowledged later that there was a considerable debate within the White House about the wisdom of his visiting with Rushdie, no matter how briefly. The meeting took place not in the Oval Office but in the Executive Office Building, where the author was meeting with National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
According to a source close to Rushdie, it was the intervention of two White House political aides, George Stephanopoulos and David Gergen, pointing out the political advantages of such a meeting, that iced it. But the event wasn't trumpeted as a statement of principle, no pictures were taken and Clinton said nothing publicly -- that is, until he uttered his gratuitous quasi-apology to the practitioners of Islam that took the edge off his commendable gesture.