By John F. Harris
Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright turned politician turned president, said he loves America but is baffled by it. The home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa he understands. The scandal that threatens to topple the man he came to visit, however, remains a mystery.
"The American nation is fantastic, big body with . . . many very different faces. I love most of these faces," Havel told a Washington news conference yesterday. "There are some which I don't understand. I don't like to speak about things which I don't understand."
But the Lewinsky scandal and its aftermath was the subject about which everyone -- American and Czech reporters alike -- wanted to ask. It made for a remarkable moment at the State Department's Dean Acheson Auditorium, where the 27-minute news conference was held.
There was Havel, president of the Czech Republic, who earned his moral authority through years of personal suffering and struggle to help his country win democracy. And there was President Clinton, a man whose moral authority is under assault in a democracy whose capital is fixated, for the moment, not on affairs of state but on an affair of a different sort.
Clinton was contrite and controlled under a barrage of questions about Monica S. Lewinsky, although he addressed some questioners not by first name but with a coolly formal "Mr." -- usually a sign he is holding back anger. The 61-year-old Havel, who has suffered serious health problems in recent years and battled a bout of pneumonia just last month, managed to stay aloof from scandal even while showing evident sympathy for his host. Several times he talked about his personal friendship with Clinton.
When a Czech reporter asked about the implications for U.S.-Czech relations if Clinton is forced from office, he said: "I believe that this is a matter for the United States and for the American people, who will be their president. 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."
This was not the first time in the Lewinsky furor that Clinton has benefited from the ambient glow that comes from standing next to a respected foreign leader. In February, a few weeks after the allegations about Clinton's extramarital relationship broke, Clinton stood in the White House for a news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the foreign leader with whom Clinton is personally closest.
With questions swirling about Clinton's honesty, Blair volunteered that he had come to know Clinton well and, "I have found him throughout someone I could trust, someone I could rely upon, someone I am proud to call not just a colleague but a friend."
And in March, Clinton stood in Cape Town with South African President Nelson Mandela, whose stature as the man who led the fight against apartheid is so towering that it seemed to chase away any appetite among U.S. reporters for scandal questions -- allowing Clinton his first Lewinsky-free news conference in months.
Havel, who like Mandela spent years in prison for his beliefs, could not match that feat, not in the frenzy that has followed last week's release of the independent counsel's report on the Lewinsky controversy. But the leader of the 1989 Velvet Revolution that blew away the Soviet-allied government in Prague did offer an elevating presence. Clinton lavished praise on Havel for being a "champion of freedom," who carried on his struggle through "harassment, interrogation, and incarceration."
But the elevated tone could not last. The first questioner asked whether Clinton had the "moral authority" to lead. Clinton recited several recent steps he has taken overseas to deal with the international economic crisis and work "for peace in Northern Ireland, for stability in Russia."
As for his authority in this country, he said: "In my view, that is something that you have to demonstrate every day. My opinion is not as important as the opinion of others. What is important is that I do my job."
Ordinarily, the pattern at joint news conferences with Clinton and heads of state is that the foreign reporters ask questions about foreign relations, while U.S. reporters focus on whatever domestic controversy happens to be in the news that day. What was striking yesterday was the degree to which the Czech press was curious about Lewinsky. One Czech reporter asked Havel "if the discovered misdeeds of President Clinton have anyhow influenced your approach to him, your relation to him."
"I didn't recognize any change," said Havel, who answered questions mostly in English.
Then, apropos of nothing apparent, he changed the subject. "In this connection, permit me to congratulate to Mr. McGwire and to wish the success to Mr. Sammy Sosa," he said, to laughter and applause.
Clinton has held one previous news conference at the State Department, in the same auditorium that John F. Kennedy used to meet reporters. Unlike Clinton's conference in December of last year, however, yesterday the audience included State Department employees who regularly applauded Clinton's answers. A few stray hisses greeted some reporters' Lewinsky questions.
Clinton actually looked discomforted by the applause and aides later insisted it was not orchestrated. "I frankly wish it had not happened," said White House press secretary Michael McCurry, because it detracted from the message of contrition and made it seem more like "a pep rally."
As for Havel, a senior official said the White House made no effort to prepare him for the likelihood of scandal questions. The aide said this was the job of the Czech Embassy, and in any event the sophisticated Havel was surely aware of Washington's environment. Havel attended the news conference with his second wife, Dagamar Veskrnova, nearly two decades his junior, whom he married in 1996 after his first wife, Olga, died of cancer.
A White House aide said visiting European leaders always have the same reaction to the Lewinsky controversy. "The reaction is one of puzzlement," the official said. "They are all amazed because they can't imagine a similar reaction in their countries."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company