President says he won't get 'mired' Right thing to do is focus on leading the country, he says

September 17, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Facing reporters for the first time since the report of his misdeeds in the Monica Lewinsky scandal was made public, President Clinton said yesterday that he was determined to lead the nation and not "get mired in all the details" of his wrongdoing.

At Clinton's joint news conference with visiting Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel, nearly all of the questions -- from both the American and Czech press -- centered on the scandal that has rocked the White House, with foreign policy issues left to the periphery.

Clinton acknowledged again that he "did something that was wrong," but refused to answer specific questions about his sworn testimony in the Lewinsky matter or anything contained in the voluminous and detailed report by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.

He declined to say whether Lewinsky's account of their relationship, as recounted in Starr's report, was accurate, or whether he still insisted that his sworn denials of a sexual relationship with the one-time White House intern were "legally accurate."

"I think that the right thing for our country and the right thing for all people concerned is not to get mired in all the details here, but for me to focus on what I did, to acknowledge it, to atone for it and then to work on my family, where I still have a lot of work to do -- difficult work -- and to lead this country," Clinton said.

The news conference was held in a State Department auditorium packed with administration employees who applauded his answers and hissed at reporters' questions.

Asked whether he could foresee any circumstance in which he might resign, because of the toll the scandal was taking on him or on the country, Clinton reiterated his intention to put the matter behind him, but gave no direct response.

"The personal toll on me is of no concern except insofar as it affects my personal life," he said. "I feel, though pain, better now, because I'm working on what I should be working on. I believe the right thing for the country, and what I believe the people of the country want, is, now that they know what happened, they want to put it behind them and they want to go on. And they want me to go on and do my job. And that's what I intend to do."

He said it was not up to him, but up to others to decide whether he still had the moral authority to lead the nation and conduct foreign affairs.

"What is important is that I do my job," he said. "I have never stopped leading this country in foreign affairs in this entire year, and I never will."

Clinton was also reserved in commenting on the expected release by Congress of his videotaped testimony before Starr's grand jury last month, which could cause him further embarrassment.

"You know that I acknowledged an improper relationship and that I declined to discuss the details, and that's what happened," Clinton said. "And so I'll leave it for others to judge and evaluate."

Havel, 61, the former playwright who led the "velvet revolution" that toppled Czechoslovakia's Communist government without violence in 1989, met with Clinton yesterday to discuss the expansion of NATO next spring to include the Czech Republic as well as Poland and Hungary, and other global matters.

But even he received all scandal-related questions from his traveling press corps.

On the mend after months of serious medical problems, Havel, speaking mostly in English, expressed support for the president and suggested he was perplexed by the controversy that has gripped the United States.

"The United States and especially the American nation is fantastic big, big body with many very different faces," said Havel, asked to comment on the scandal. "I love most of these faces. There are some which I don't understand. I don't like to speak about things which I don't understand."

The baseball fan evoked much laughter when, in deflecting another Lewinsky-related question, he cited "faces which we understand very well" and congratulated America's two record-breaking home-run hitters, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

Havel said Clinton's acknowledged transgressions had caused no change in his relationship with the U.S. leader. Asked how an eventual resignation or impeachment of Clinton would affect foreign policy and Czech-U.S. relations, Havel responded with diplomacy.

"I believe that this is a matter for the United States and for the American people -- who will be their president," he said, resorting to his native language for the only time.

"When I have made a friendship with someone, I remain that person's friend no matter which office he or she holds or doesn't hold."

Havel, whose official state visit was part of a five-day U.S. trip, praised Clinton in his opening remarks, saying it was "in his time when we received the chance to build a new Europe, and to build a new Europe it means to build the new world, peaceful world."

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