By John F. Harris
"All these people that have been working hard on this for seven years now -- they can affect my reputation," Clinton told reporters. "They can do nothing, for good or ill, to affect my character."
Clinton marched into the East Room news conference, his most extensive exchange with reporters since the Monica S. Lewinsky controversy broke three months ago, armed with good news: new figures showing the economy growing at a robust 4.2 percent annually. Over the course of nearly an hour, he hailed the imminent Senate vote to expand the NATO alliance. He said he is "encouraged" by Iraq's recent compliance with U.N. weapons inspectors. And he warned that if legislation to curb youth smoking does not pass this year it will be because tobacco supporters in Congress "who have a political or financial interest in seeing that this matter is not resolved between now and November prevent it from being resolved."
But nearly half of the 33 questions and follow-ups returned to the subject of his still-unexplained relationship with the former White House intern and the legal crisis it spawned. Despite Clinton's promise in January to say "more rather than less, sooner rather than later" about the controversy, he has steadfastly declined to provide new details about his behavior or defense strategy. Yesterday for the first time Clinton said he is "absolutely" prepared to leave Lewinsky questions hanging for the rest of his presidency if that is what his lawyers advise.
At the same time, he suggested the latest allegations -- including repeated blasts in recent days by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) -- are the latest incarnation of a long-standing campaign to tear him down.
"And it's obvious, I think, to the American people that this has been a hard, well-financed, vigorous effort over a long period of time by those who could not contest the ideas that I brought to the table . . . and certainly can't quarrel with the consequences and the results of my service," the president said. "And, therefore, personal attack seems legitimate." Professing that his work is undeterred by the controversy, Clinton used some of his bluntest language to date to make clear he shares the contempt his allies repeatedly have voiced toward independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
Asked if he feels responsible that so many of his friends have faced legal or financial ruin because of the investigations, Clinton shot back: "No. If there's one person in the world I am not responsible for, it's Mr. Starr. I think all of you would admit that."
Clinton also showed how intimately he follows the daily back-and-forth between Starr's office and his own legal and political advisers. He said a statement from his personal attorney, David E. Kendall, explaining that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton answered all but two questions from prosecutors in a five-hour deposition last Saturday "blows . . . out of the water" any suggestion by Starr's office that she had been uncooperative and "amounts to a 'shame on them' for saying that."
The president even called attention to a recent New Yorker magazine article he read raising questions about whether Starr's deputy, W. Hickman Ewing Jr., is operating from a "presumption of guilt."
Clinton advisers contend that Starr's reputation for vindictiveness is so widely held that any report he presents to Congress to be used as the basis for possible impeachment hearings against Clinton will be regarded with suspicion by the public.
When the Lewinsky controversy broke, Clinton promised cooperation with investigators. But recent reports, attributed to sources familiar with the case, have said Clinton's lawyers have rebuffed offers by Starr to have the president voluntarily give a deposition in the case. Asked if these reports were true or whether he would commit to an interview with Starr, Clinton brusquely declined to answer and referred the question to Kendall, who did not return a phone call.
Clinton acknowledged -- though only by inference -- what has been known for weeks: that he has directed his lawyers to assert executive privilege to avoid having certain aides testify before a grand jury investigating the Lewinsky controversy. Clinton said a judge's secrecy order prevents him from defending the privilege claims, but said his preference is to have the legal papers unsealed so that "all of you can see what this is about and draw your own conclusions."
The president repeated earlier assertions by aides that the White House has played no role in decisions by the Treasury and Justice departments to try to prevent Secret Service agents from testifying in the Lewinsky case. But he suggested he is sympathetic to the Secret Service argument that forced testimony would damage the presidency.
"The president, for example, would feel that conversations in the limousine going to and from places and other things that he might do in the future that have every right to be kept confidential would be subject to questioning," Clinton said. "And even if there was nothing unlawful about them, they would then be leaked, even if leaking is illegal. And, certainly, they have lots of evidence to support that worry."
Clinton acknowledged that controversies over personal allegations are "distracting, and we live in a time where they are more prominent. . . . And I deal with them the very best I can."
The scrutiny and attacks, Clinton said, account for polls showing people like his policies but do not respect him personally. "Well, I don't think it's hard to account for," Clinton said. "It's been part of a strategy that's -- goes all the way back to 1991. And -- but it used to distress me greatly. It doesn't anymore. . . . I can't get in an argument with the American people about this."
Clinton likewise took a rise-above-it tone toward Gingrich, who this week accused Clinton of lacking moral authority and stonewalling legitimate questions. "I can be responsible for a lot of things, but I'm not responsible for the speaker's behavior," Clinton said. "Nothing he says about me personally, nothing, will keep me from working with him and with other Republicans in the Congress to do everything I possibly can on every issue before us."
Tobacco, Clinton repeated several times, was a subject on which he was eager to cooperate. Emphatically denying that he was more interested in exploiting an issue in the fall congressional elections than in passing a bill, Clinton signaled a willingness to debate how to spend the billions that would be raised from cigarette makers. "I would never stand in the way of a tobacco bill that actually reduced childhood smoking because they disagreed with me about how to spend the money," the president said.
On other issues, Clinton:
Asserted that the roaring stock market reflects the fundamental strength of the economy but cautioned: "I think the best way to avoid having a big bubble that someday pops is to make sure that we have open information about where we are . . . and the progress of the market is pretty well tied to the real progress of the economy."
Urged Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to compromise at upcoming talks in London. "The most principled compromise will leave both sides dissatisfied," he said. "What they have to decide is, do they want to roll the dice?" in favor of peace.
Signaled that he is considering drawing down the large military force that has been in the Persian Gulf since the fall because of greater compliance by Iraq with weapons inspectors. While he awaits a Pentagon recommendation, Clinton said, "inevitably, unless we believe there is some reason for it to be there, at some point in the future I would anticipate some reallocation of our resources."
Conceded that he has no plans this year to try to pass a stalled bill giving him "fast track" trade authority, largely because congressional Democrats do not want to act in an election year.
Said he has not decided whether to extend the life of a presidential commission studying racial issues. "There are lots of specific [legislative] things we still have to do as well as other avenues of dialogue that I think need to be explored," Clinton said of the initiative on racial healing he began last year.
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