Subdued Clinton discusses scandal

President emphasizes work with Congress on his policy agenda

February 20, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Seeking once again to put a year of scandal behind him, President Clinton promised yesterday not to let "any destructive feelings" prevent him from getting back to work on his policy agenda.

Clinton said he did not believe his impeachment had hurt the presidency but conceded that it did harm the nation.

With French President Jacques Chirac by his side, Clinton faced the press for the first time since December.

But the fury of the Monica Lewinsky scandal seemed thoroughly spent -- even in the media. Although his impeachment was raised, the news conference ranged freely, from first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's possible Senate bid to a trade dispute with the European Union over bananas. Questions about the brewing military crisis in Kosovo dominated the 20-minute session.

With measured words and little evident emotion, Clinton tried to sum up the lessons of his affair with Lewinsky, his efforts to cover it up, and the ensuing scandal that led to his impeachment, trial and acquittal.

"Presidents are people, too," he said, expressing gratitude to the American public, which appeared to stay with him -- or at least declined to turn against him.

"I have learned, again, an enormous amount of respect for our Constitution, our framers, and for the American people," Clinton said. "And my advice to future presidents would be to decide what you believe you ought to do for the country and focus on it and work hard, that the American people hire you to do that and will respond if you work at it."

The news conference, in the East Room of the White House, came a day after Clinton's ebullient and symbolic trip back to New Hampshire, the state where he began a comeback to win the 1992 presidential primaries. At a boisterous state Democratic Party fund-raiser Thursday night, Clinton gleefully recalled his pledge seven years ago to "stick with you until the last dog dies."

"We've seen a lot of dogs killed," he told a cheering Democratic crowd, "but at least this last one is still living."

Yesterday, he shed that air of triumph for a more subdued, almost regretful tone.

"I hope that the presidency has not been harmed. I don't believe it has been," he said. "I can't say that I think this has been good for the country."

And he again hinted at the pain he inflicted on his wife over the past 13 months, showing great deference to the first lady's feelings when he was asked about her possible bid for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring New York Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Aides have said the president would see his wife's political endeavor as a way for him to help make up for the humiliation he has caused her. But he did not want to appear to be pushing her.

"She has just been through a very exhausting year, and there are circumstances which have to be considered," Clinton said of the Senate race, speaking haltingly and choosing his words carefully. "And I think some time needs to be taken here."

Still, with scandal at bay, at least for now, Clinton is eager to get to work on a relatively ambitious agenda for a president in his seventh year in office. And he hopes to put his consistently high approval ratings to good use, confident that a demoralized Republican Congress will be eager to compromise.

Republicans have said they need to compile a significant legislative record by 2000 to help get voters to forget the highly unpopular impeachment drive.

"I expect to have two good years here. I think the American people expect the Congress and me to get back to work, expect us either not to have any destructive feelings, or if we do, not to let them get in the way of our doing their business," Clinton concluded.

"The United States has great responsibilities to its own people and to the rest of the world. And I don't believe that any of us can afford to let what has happened get in the way of doing our best for our own people and for the future."

Last night, barely an hour and a half after he issued a posthumous pardon to the first black graduate of West Point, Clinton joined an NAACP reception in a Washington museum. Before taking the podium, Clinton was given a standing ovation as supporters yelled, "Go, Bill! Go, Bill! Six more years."

Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, signaled the president's visit as a homecoming. "This president can sing the hymns, and you know he doesn't need a hymnbook," Bond said.

Clinton said he appeared mostly to thank some of his strongest supporters through the impeachment trial. "I came here to say a simple thank you -- for doing what you're doing for America and for being my friend."

Thomas W. Dortch, a businessman and NAACP fund-raising official from Atlanta, said, "Clinton is the first president we've had who has been sincerely comfortable with us. We're forgiving people."

Sun staff writer Erin Texeira contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 2/20/99

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