WASHINGTON -- President Clinton left open the possibility that a 6-year-old Cuban boy caught in a fractious, international custody dispute could remain in the United States, though he vowed that "that politics or threats" would not determine the boy's fate.
In an hour-long news conference that roved from the future of his marriage to the fate of the Panama Canal, Clinton tried to sum up a tumultuous year that started with his impeachment trial and will end weeks after the collapse of trade talks in Seattle.
But he painted the intervening months as both productive and hopeful, pointing to prospects of peace in the Middle East, advances in managed care legislation and a move to sue gun manufacturers as signs that his final year in office will be an active one.
"I know the conventional wisdom is that these things are less likely to be done in election years, but in some ways, they may be more likely," he said.
Still, with Washington increasingly polarized, Clinton made it clear his primary attention would be on foreign policy.
He said again that Russia would "pay a heavy price" for its assault on Chechnya, but he ruled out cutting off U.S. aid, saying that two-thirds of that assistance is for stabilizing Russia's nuclear weapons, with the other one-third aimed at the promotion of democracy.
"I don't think our interests would be furthered by terminating that," he said, though he indicated that aid from the International Monetary Fund could be jeopardized by a military assault that Clinton said would fail to rout separatists in the breakaway Russian province.
On the fate of Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old refugee whose mother and stepfather drowned during their flight from Cuba, Clinton said U.S. law would determine whether the boy would remain in the United States or be returned to his father in Cuba.
"All fathers would be sympathetic" to the plea of Gonzalez's father, Clinton said. But he left open the possibility that the boy would not be returned to his family, saying that even in this country, children do not always belong with their birth parents.
"Would, you know, children be better off with their parents in America?" he asked. "Almost always, but not always."
Clinton also defended a White House move toward preparing a class-action lawsuit against gun manufacturers on behalf of federal public housing authorities. The president said 10,000 gun crimes are committed every year at the largest public housing complexes, which spend $1 billion a year on security. The federal suit would not be seeking money, he said, only stricter controls on the sale, marketing and design of guns.
"They're not trying to bankrupt any companies," he said of the federal housing authorities. "They're trying to make their living spaces safer, and I think it's a legitimate thing."
Clinton agreed that he has begun using executive actions to accomplish what he could not secure through legislation, listing new orders on medical privacy, paid family leave, and a freeze on roads through national forests. But he said he would not give up on larger, legislative initiatives, such as Social Security and Medicare reform.
The president tried to put to rest rumors that First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's imminent move to New York signaled a pending break-up, saying they speak to each other at least once a day. The first lady has said she would begin moving her belongings to the Clintons' new home in suburban Chappaqua by the end of this month so she can concentrate on campaigning for a New York Senate seat.
"She's got to spend a long time in New York, so she'll be there a lot," Clinton said. "She'll be here when she can. I'll go up there when I can. And we'll be together as much as we can.
"It's not the best arrangement in the world," he said, "but it's something that we can live with for a year."
He sidestepped an opportunity to jump into the war of words over health-care policy between Vice President Al Gore and his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bill Bradley.
But he did take an indirect hit at Bradley's proposal to subsidize the purchase of private insurance by the working poor.
"If you give all taxpayers subsidies [to purchase health insurance], the problem is you have to give subsidies to people who already have insurance, and it may operate as an incentive for people who are employers to drop [insurance coverage] even faster," he said.
In contrast, "what the vice president is trying to do is to target discrete populations [without insurance] on the theory that you can cover more people for relatively less money," Clinton said.
In his last news conference of the year, the president also submitted his own nomination for man of the century: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man who set "an example to Americans of the importance of not giving up and of the dignity inherent in every person."