WASHINGTON -- President Clinton may not have served in the armed forces, but he has been commander in chief for two years now and has learned how to handle an insubordinate Marine.
The presidential put-down came at the expense of Oliver L. North, the former Marine colonel and Iran-contra figure who is the Republican candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in Virginia.
Mr. North asserted recently that Mr. Clinton had offered former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder an ambassadorship in return for Mr. Wilder's endorsement of incumbent Democrat Sen. Charles S. Robb. Earlier, Mr. North said, "Bill Clinton is not my commander in chief."
Asked about the claim involving Mr. Wilder, Mr. Clinton replied at a news conference yesterday: "That just did not happen." Then he added, "Now, you know Oliver North says a lot of things. . . . I noticed the other day he said I wasn't his commander in chief. Someone asked me if it bothered me. I said it didn't bother me nearly as much the fact that he didn't act as if Ronald Reagan was his commander in chief either."
Mr. Clinton's news conference was dominated by foreign policy issues, but his longest and most evocative answer was in response to a question about racial problems in America. In doing so, Mr. Clinton waded into an extraordinarily sensitive subject -- a theory that IQ differences in the United States are attributable to race.
A new book, written by the conservative scholar Charles Murray and the late Harvard psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein, asserts that because African-Americans as a group have lower IQ scores than whites, they may be consigned to second-tier levels of social and economic achievement.
"I haven't read it," Mr. Clinton replied. "But as I understand the argument of it, I have to say I disagree with the proposition that there are inherent, racially biased differences in the capacity of the American people to reach their full potential. I don't agree with that. It goes against our entire history and our whole tradition."
He spoke about problems, including out-of-wedlock births, that afflict whites and blacks, and concluded: "This is a very serious and complicated issue. I think it is a quick fix to try to break it down by race."
Among the other domestic issues the president touched upon at the news conference:
* Illegal immigration: Mr. Clinton was asked whether he favored California's Proposition 187, which would deny government assistance, including education, to illegal aliens. It will be on the California ballot Nov. 8.
The president said no, putting him in line with every major California Democrat, but against Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican who complains that federal requirements for caring for illegal aliens have not been accompanied by federal dollars.
"We need to back away and change our policy, but we don't
need to do it in a way that is over-broad, that runs the risk of [encouraging a backlash against legal immigration] and that is plainly unconstitutional," Mr. Clinton said.
* Midterm elections: Asked to handicap the midterm elections, the president took a pass.
"Almost always at midterm, the incumbent president's party loses seats," he said. "So I'm going to do everything . . . I can to get as many voters as possible to know exactly what the facts are and what our vision for the future is. Then, they will make their judgment."
* "Normal" Washingtonians: The president was asked whether he agreed with the assertion by one Republican member of 0ongress that "there are no normal people in Washington."
"I don't know," he said. "I think there's a bunch of normal folks here, but I think this atmosphere is sort of abnormal."