Scandal eclipses global issues U.S. reporters ask about Lewinsky case, not turmoil in Russia

September 03, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW SUSAN BAER OF THE SUN'S WASHINGTON BUREAU CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — MOSCOW -- Russia may be in acute economic and political crisis. The course of reform in this battered nuclear power and the very future of President Boris N. Yeltsin may be in doubt.

But of three questions put to President Clinton by American reporters during a press conference yesterday in the stately Catherine Hall of the Kremlin, two were about Monica Lewinsky.

Clinton answered them without really answering, declining to use the opportunity to issue a more formal apology for misleading the nation about his relationship with Lewinsky, and betraying no particular emotion or discomfort.

Yeltsin, sitting by with plenty of his own problems, didn't budge a muscle.

But Rep. Steny Hoyer, who is accompanying the president, was so angry at the scandal-related questions that when he later bumped into one of the reporters, the Maryland Democrat told him, "As an American I'm outraged. It was inappropriate to ask about Lewinsky when there were so many more important things to discuss."

That reporter, Larry McQuillan of Reuters, said last night, "You know, in a way I agree with him. It is an awkward thing to ask Clinton something like that in such a setting, with Boris Yeltsin sitting close by."

But he said the press had had no access to Clinton since he gave his national speech acknowledging a relationship with Lewinsky more than two weeks ago, and there was no prospect of access anytime soon.

"I felt awkward, but I also felt an obligation to ask him," McQuillan said. "It just seemed to me he fell way short of adequately addressing it."

The Kremlin press conference began with both presidents discussing the two days of talks they had held on issues ranging from the destruction of plutonium stocks to Kosovo to the current Russian economic collapse. Questions followed, and in response to one from a Russian reporter, Clinton talked about how the future health of the Russian economy depends a lot more on what Russians can do for themselves than on outside help.

Then Lori Santos, of United Press International, asked him if his admission to having a relationship with Lewinsky had "given you any cause for concern that you may not be as effective as you should be in leading the country?"

Clinton replied, "No, I've actually been quite heartened by the reaction of the American people and leaders throughout the world about it. I have acknowledged that I made a mistake, said that I regretted it, asked to be forgiven, spent a lot of very valuable time with my family in the last couple of weeks and said I was going back to work. I believe that's what the American people want me to do and that is what I intend to do."

Contrary to his response, Clinton has never publicly asked for forgiveness, although in his Aug. 17 address he did express "regret" for misleading the country, and his wife, about what he called an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky.

Many politicians, including some of his own advisers, believe the president erred in attacking independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr in that address, and have urged Clinton to make a more direct, contrite apology for his actions.

McQuillan, the next Washington-based reporter to ask a question, alluded to such calls. "You know, there have been some who expressed disappointment that you didn't offer a formal apology the other night when you spoke to the American people," the reporter said. "Do you feel you need to offer an apology? And, in retrospect now, with some distance, do you have any feeling that perhaps the tone of your speech was something that didn't quite convey the feelings that you have -- particularly your comments in regard to Mr. Starr?"

Clinton replied that he couldn't comment on people's reaction to the speech.

"I read it the other day again," he said, "and I thought it was clear that I was expressing my profound regret to all who were hurt and to all who were involved, and my desire not to see any more people hurt by this process and caught up in it. And I was commenting that it seemed to be something that most reasonable people would think had consumed a disproportionate amount of America's time, money, and resources, and attention."

Only one other American reporter was called on to ask a question, and that concerned the health of the U.S. stock market. The only questions about Russia came from Russians.

Later, McQuillan was in a pool that went with Clinton to the U.S. Embassy. As he was standing in a hallway, Hoyer happened by.

"He just came up to me looking very stern, kind of was wagging his finger," McQuillan said. "He was speaking very firmly and passionately."

Hoyer, reached at his hotel last night, was at first reluctant to discuss the issue because he believes that too much has already been made of the Lewinsky case, and that Moscow is a particularly inappropriate place to continue talking about it.

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