Even in Africa, Clinton can't escape media inquiries about scandal

March 27, 1998|By Jack Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Pressed by reporters with still more questions about Monica Lewinsky, President Clinton likes to say that he is just concentrating on doing "the job I hired out to do."

It is hard to argue with that. And it is a line that is particularly effective politically when the president is being badgered while traveling abroad. Considering the fact that most Americans don't like the press anyway, it's easy to imagine voters reacting sympathetically to the television film of Mr. Clinton being asked embarrassing questions while in Uganda the other day.

Pressed about his rationale in seeking executive privilege, the president replied rather testily, "Look, that's a question that's being asked and answered back home by the people who are responsible to do that. I don't believe I should be discussing that here."

On the defense

Then, defending his trip to Africa, he added, "I think most Americans want me to do the job I was elected to do." The message was clear: You reporters are out of line.

But the president's argument has some flaws, the most obvious being that Mr. Clinton wasn't elected to play slap-and-tickle in the Oval Office as he has been accused of doing with Monica Lewinsky and Kathleen Willey.

More to the point, it is clear that the failure of the president to answer the questions raised about his personal conduct has interfered with his ability to do the job he hired out to do. So long as he and his advisers are preoccupied with the scandal, it will be impossible for them to focus on national concerns.

Being hounded by the press with foreign leaders at his side is an awkward experience for the president. But his contention that the questions are "being asked and answered back home" is specious. Those questions are not being answered anywhere.

When the Lewinsky allegations surfaced two months ago, Mr. Clinton made a point of saying he wanted to deal with the matter as promptly and as fully as he could. In fact, Mr. Clinton has made a point of avoiding as often as possible situations in which he might be asked to give a full explanation of his relationship with Ms. Lewinsky.

Sealed lips

Instead, he has seized on the explanation that the matter is in the courts and that he is limited in what he can say. But that doesn't hold water either. Although it is true that grand jury testimony is supposed to be kept confidential, the president has not yet testified to a grand jury and is free to discuss the matter.

So the course he is following is essentially the same one President Richard M. Nixon followed in the Watergate case. He is stonewalling in the hope that the controversy will die for lack of fresh nourishment. But the issues here, although trivial when compared to those in Watergate, won't go away so long as a special prosecutor, a Republican Congress and the press seek answers.

Mr. Clinton is sustained in his strategy, however, by the fact that public approval of his performance in office remains at an extremely high level -- close to 70 percent in some surveys --

even though most Americans don't approve of his personal behavior. Nixon didn't enjoy such support in the Watergate case; his approval ratings went down steadily as the story unfolded. And, the polls also show, the reporters hounding Mr. Clinton clearly don't evoke much public sympathy.

Much of that approval for the Clinton performance is probably a reflection of the extraordinary health of the economy. Most Americans apparently are not feeling the need for some specific action in Washington to deal even with such pressing concerns as the health of the Medicare and Social Security programs.

Presidential travels

By spending so much time traveling this year, Mr. Clinton is once again following a pattern established by other presidents in trouble on the home front. And the extraordinarily enthusiastic reception he has been given by Africans must be warming to a politician facing so much hostility at home.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/27/98

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