Clinton's deft answers provide breathing room



WASHINGTON -- In all the postmortems on President Clinton's prime-time news conference, in which he answered a steady stream of questions about the Whitewater case, it should be borne in mind that he called the conference on his own initiative at a time the polls indicated serious slippage in his public support.

He was not dragged kicking and screaming before the reporters but instead held the news conference in prime time clearly to assure the largest possible audience. He and his political advisers were well aware that the drumbeat of queries about Whitewater would dominate the session, and he deftly played on that concentration to underscore a winning point with the electorate.

That is, while news media seem fixated on a matter of his personal finances some 16 years ago in Arkansas, he was able to emphasize that he is trying to get on with the country's, and the people's, important business.

The president made the point explicitly in his opening remarks, observing that "many people around America must believe that Washington is overwhelmingly preoccupied with the Whitewater matter, but our administration is preoccupied with the business we were sent here to do for the American people."

The news conference itself, predictably, then proceeded to demonstrate his point. The first 15 questions posed to Clinton related to Whitewater, and 18 of the 21 asked. Only a single question was raised about health care reform, which has dominated the Clinton legislative agenda all winter. It came near the very end and occupied no more than a minute or so of the 40-minute give-and-take.

From the point of view of the press, that score card of Whitewater queries was valid. After all, the Clintons' old real estate deal clearly was on the front burner, in the news community at least, what with an avalanche of stories questioning their behavior on the matter, with a special investigator and grand jury looking into it and both houses of Congress committing themselves to hearings at some indeterminate time.

Also, a highly respected moderate Republican, Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, had just leveled a charge of "arrogance of power" against the White House, alleging that the independence of federal regulators had been "flagrantly violated" in the White water case to protect the president or his wife. Here was the opportunity that reporters had been waiting for, some of them demanding, to get specific answers from the president.

While Clinton responded to every question at length, and did provide some new information, particularly on the matter of how much he actually lost in the Whitewater deal, about which so much has been made, it was his manner more than the substance that made the news conference a public relations 10-strike for him.

The contrast, for example, with a grim Richard Nixon in 1973-74 nervously and unconvincingly offering stacks of heavily edited transcripts of White House tapes on Watergate before the television cameras, could not have been sharper. Clinton exuded self-confidence and a command of his subject matter in yet another demonstration of his unexcelled talent in public life as a talker, persuader and, yes, schmoozer.

The snappishness toward his Republican critics exhibited earlier in a Boston speech was absent. It clearly would have been at cross purposes with the reason for holding the news conference -- to display an open, commanding and mild-tempered president withholding nothing and not blaming anybody. He permitted himself only the mild suggestion that Leach's charges may have stemmed from "career Republican appointees . . . hired under previous Republican administrations."

In all, the low esteem with which the press is held these days makes it a useful foil for a president who implies its peskiness is keeping him from doing the people's work. Clinton employed the foil masterfully. He can say with much more validity now that he has not ducked the press. And he probably has given himself some breathing room with voters until the special investigator and Congress have their say on Whitewater in the weeks, and probably months, ahead.

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