A world in wonder at the Clinton-Lewinsky spectacle Britons are astonished, others seem bemused

September 11, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF Ann LoLordo, The Sun's Middle East correspondent; Will Englund, The Sun's Moscow correspondent; and Hilary Hinds Kitasei, a contributing writer in Tokyo, provided information for this article.

LONDON -- Even in the country that practically wrote the book on steamy political scandals, Britons are astonished by the drawn-out spectacle of President Clinton's crisis over the Monica Lewinsky matter.

With mounting levels of frustration and fascination, the British, like much of the rest of the world, are watching as the Clinton saga unfolds in Washington. And they are wondering how global events will be affected while a politically wounded president -- still considered by many to be the leader of the free world -- faces the fight of his life in a bid to hold off impeachment.

"The world needs an American president who can speak and act with authority," said Douglas Hurd, Britain's former foreign secretary. "We're not so much concerned with the domestic side of it, or indeed the ethical side of it, but what is not healthy is to have -- for any length of time -- a president whose every word and deed is interpreted in the light of his misfortunes at home."

Michael Portillo, Britain's former defense secretary, agreed with the assessment, that in dangerous times, a politically strong president isn't just a luxury -- it's a necessity. And that for the time being, Clinton is weak.

"I sense that the West, including the United States, has lost much of its moral authority at a time when it needs it to deal with problems like Iraq, or terrorism in the Sudan and Afghanistan, or nuclear testing in India or Pakistan," Portillo said. "Clearly, if you have a wounded president, your moral authority is reduced further."

In the British system, a matter like this would have been dealt with quickly -- with a letter of resignation.

"Some senior figures would have called at 10 Downing St. [the prime minister's residence] and delivered the bad news," Portillo said.

Still, Portillo said he is perplexed by the scandal, which in many ways is eerily British.

"There was a kind of feeling in Britain that most other countries wouldn't get themselves into such a tangle," Portillo said. "It's kind of surprising to me to see it playing in the U.S. rather similarly."

In the dying days of the last Conservative government, the Tories were plagued by a string of sex scandals involving government ministers. The party also was rocked in 1963 by revelations that John Profumo, the secretary of state for war, was having an affair with former showgirl Christine Keeler, who was also in a liaison with a Soviet naval attache. In the end, Profumo was forced out -- not because of the sex, but because he had lied about the affair to Parliament.

Already, some British newspapers are calling for Clinton's ouster.

"Resignation now, before the risk of an impeachment that could tip an already unstable world towards depression, looks increasingly the best option," Rupert Murdoch's Times of London declared in an editorial Wednesday.

Yesterday, the Financial Times wrote: "Bill Clinton has allowed a rather sordid little private affair to balloon into a big question of judgment and probity, which has already brought indignity to the office of U.S. president."

While saying that Clinton's resignation does not appear likely, the paper added, "Whatever he does will leave the office of the president further weakened, the legislature stronger -- and his reputation in tatters."

Among the greater nations, only Russia, fighting economic collapse and beset by political instability, seemed to ignore the crisis.

Elsewhere around the world, the Clinton saga dominated the news -- and conversations among ordinary people.

In Denmark, long a haven for progressive thought and lifestyles, the political establishment seems bemused by the scandal.

"We just don't have sexual scandals in this country," said Toeger Seidenfaden, editor in chief of the Danish national newspaper, Politiken. "It's not that our politicians don't have sex. But our scandals have to do with politics or law or money. Not sex."

Seidenfaden said that only in the past few weeks have Danes realized that Clinton faces serious problems at home, which could soon reverberate worldwide.

"If he is weakened in America, he is weakened as a world leader," Seidenfaden said.

In Germany, the news media and the public have long followed a hands-off approach to the private lives of politicians. Despite four marriages, Gerhard Schroeder of the Social Democratic Party has maintained his political career and is the front-runner to become German chancellor after this month's national elections.

But the Germans have continued to keep a wary eye on Clinton.

Yesterday's Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper viewed the Clinton story with distaste and a measure of sadness, calling the president "the master of affairs."

In Israel, the report filed by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr led the country's three daily newspapers and the hourly morning radio news yesterday as Clinton's Middle East envoy, Dennis Ross, met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the stalled peace process.

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