Clinton's speech stanches bloodshed

March 25, 1994|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- It was always unrealistic to imagine that President Clinton might reverse the course of his political fortunes with a single virtuoso performance at a White House news conference. Those things happen only in the movies.

But if the goal was to stop the political bleeding, at least for the moment, the president may have succeeded. One tentative answer will come in the next round of opinion polls after the dust has settled; the final answer obviously cannot come until all the facts have been laid out by the investigators, probably not until sometime next year.

The operative question now is whether Mr. Clinton can turn his attention and the nation's back to his domestic agenda -- the health care, welfare reform and crime issues he cited repeatedly -- without any "developments" in the Whitewater case causing further distractions.

Mr. Clinton always has been a resilient and tenacious politician who learned from his failures as well as from his successes. In his confrontation with reporters preoccupied with Whitewater he demonstrated once again that, as he put it, "you learn things as you go along in this business."

Thus, although clearly irked at a couple of points, he avoided repeating the mistakes that he, Hillary Rodham Clinton and some of their surrogates have been making. The president neither placed blame nor attributed his problems to some partisan conspiracy to thwart him in his serious purpose.

And he made the points that the situation demanded. Yes, he was cooperating fully with investigators and would continue to do so. Yes, there had been some mistakes. But this whole thing, he reminded his television audience, was a pretty routine business transaction that went sour as many real estate deals did in those years of skyrocketing interest rates. He was, he suggested, a little puzzled by the "inordinate amount of interest in a 16-year-old business venture."

In one way, the president was blessed. If the voters don't like politicians, the polls show they like the press even less. So it would not be surprising if Mr. Clinton's constituents were sympathetic toward his being badgered about the year-old flap about the White House travel office and the momentous issue of why some White House employees have failed to get their permanent credentials.

But if it is probably fair to say that Mr. Clinton will get good reviews on his performance under fire in the East Room, it is equally fair to say that his political fortunes will turn most on how the story plays itself out -- most especially on whether Mr. Clinton can get through a week or a month without some new gaffe by the White House or some fresh embarrassment brought on him by those around him.

The president was probably correct in saying on several occasions that Americans are more interested in their economic security and their health care than in that 16-year-old business venture. But even as he made his case to a prime-time audience for the first time, new opinion polls showed that he has paid a price from the focus on Whitewater.

Two surveys found his approval rating below 50 percent and down sharply in the past few weeks.

There is, in short, a climate of unease described by the polling numbers, and Mr. Clinton and his advisers clearly have found the same thing in the unpublished polls done for the White House day after day.

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