Clinton turns to humor, issues in bid to defuse animosity over Whitewater

CHARMING THE NATION'S PRESS

April 14, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, seeking to take some of the animosity out of coverage of the Whitewater affair, this week tried to charm the press -- and appeal to its best instincts.

It worked, for a little while anyway.

Although determined to keep the discussion on a high plane at the American Society of Newspaper Editors lunch yesterday, Mr. Clinton ended up snapping at an editor who all but accused him of lying about Whitewater.

"All I can tell you, sir, is I have done my best to answer the questions asked of me," Mr. Clinton said coldly to John Simpson, international editor of USA Today. "I have been as candid and as forthright as I can."

This was not, White House officials conceded, part of the script. The night before, taking a page from Ronald Reagan's book, the president had camouflaged his grievances about the news media's coverage of Whitewater with some self-deprecating humor during the 50th anniversary dinner of the Radio & Television Correspondents' Association.

"I really am delighted to be here," the president deadpanned Tuesday night to the 1,500 journalists, network news executives and guests.

"If you believe that, I've got some land in northwest Arkansas I'd like to sell you."

The president also gently chided the working reporters present, quipping, "It's three days before April 15th, and most of you have spent a lot more time on my taxes than on your own. Well, many happy returns."

Mr. Clinton also poked fun at his own habit of prefacing speeches by listing a litany of what he sees as his accomplishments. Tuesday night, the president offered this spoof list of accomplishments:

* Raising $21 million in back taxes from people with nannies. "And we're not even through the audits in the West Wing yet."

* Millions of Americans now "feel better about how they look in jogging shorts."

* Creating 2.3 million jobs -- almost 50 percent of them "in the health insurance lobby."

Members of the audience loved all of it. They even cheered enthusiastically, along with the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton, when liberal humorist Garrison Keillor blistered the press for making too much out of Whitewater.

But yesterday the president's remarks were in a more serious vein. He spent almost 20 minutes at the ASNE lunch outlining what he views as the most pressing problems in the United States.

Those include a dangerous level of violent crime; a health care system that is expensive, doesn't guarantee coverage to all and inhibits worker mobility; and a disquieting decline in national values that has corresponded with an increase in out-of-wedlock births to teens.

"Our country is more than an economy," he said.

"It is a community of shared values, values which have to be strengthened."

Decrying this week's arrest of two Maryland 10-year-olds for trying to sell crack, the president added: "We cannot live the lives of children for them. So every one of us -- every parent, every teacher, every person -- has to somehow find a way to reach these kids before it's too late."

Mr. Clinton also congratulated news organizations that won Pulitzer Prizes this week, singling out those that published in-depth articles about the social problems he was discussing.

"A government program alone cannot do it," he said. "We have to do it with the kinds of things you do with these special reportings in your newspaper and galvanizing and organizing people all over this country, community by community."

Determined to keep the discourse on a high plane, the president refrained from criticizing the press when invited by a questioner to "grade" media coverage of his administration, including Whitewater.

"If I could grade the press, I wouldn't," the president said to laughter. "Especially not now."

He added that it was impossible to generalize about the press anyway.

But the president's high intentions were --ed when Mr. Simpson rose and said that as he and his daughter watched a recent Clinton news conference, his daughter remarked that the president's Whitewater explanations reminded her of her own excuses about why she hadn't done her homework.

This brought a muted flash of the Clinton temper.

"Maybe you have total and complete recollection of every question that might be asked of you at any moment of things that happened 12, 13, 14 years ago," he snapped.

"You think I should have shut the whole federal government down and studied these things full time?"

Some of the editors seemed to squirm in embarrassment at the question, and Mr. Simpson himself sheepishly told the president that his answer was "wonderful."

Perhaps Mr. Clinton's most candid line about the press had come the night before, when he made fun of his own "touchy-feely" instinct to tell audiences that he "feels" their pain.

Regarding his relationship with the press, the president quipped, "I feel my pain."

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