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Aides: Clinton Too Busy to Watch Hearing

President Clinton greets a in the Ginza district of Tokyo on Friday. (AP)

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  • By John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, November 21, 1998; Page A9

    SEOUL, Nov. 21 (Saturday) — President Clinton today said he has already punished himself in the Monica S. Lewinsky affair and called on Congress to "get beyond the partisanship" as the House decides whether to impeach him.

    In his first extensive comments since independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr testified Thursday to the House Judiciary Committee, Clinton also took obvious satisfaction in Starr's revelation that he found no impeachable offenses in his Whitewater, travel office or FBI files investigations.

    "I do believe that the long-awaited acknowledgment that there was nothing on which to proceed in this travel issue, this file issue and Whitewater, which this whole matter was supposed to be about, was a positive thing," he said.

    Clinton's tone was in keeping with how he has reacted to the domestic controversy this week while traveling in Japan and South Korea: He portrayed the impeachment inquiry as a distant storm to which he was a passive and only partly attentive observer.

    Earlier in Tokyo, aides said, the television in Clinton's hotel room played a snippet of the congressional impeachment hearing, but aides said he was too busy working on a speech draft to pay it any mind.

    White House press secretary Joe Lockhart, watching the tube in his own room, insisted that he clicked right past the hearing in favor of a channel featuring Japanese sumo wrestling.

    This is the official line this week on Clinton's trip: The president is far too immersed in important Asian economic and security issues to give more than glancing attention to the impeachment fracas back in Washington.

    Clinton felt it important enough to let people know that the hearing was not interrupting his summit schedule that he briefly interrupted his schedule to make the point.

    At the airport in Tokyo on Friday night, before Air Force One departed for South Korea, aides suddenly summoned the small pool of reporters that on the road stays constantly by Clinton's side to let them know that he wanted to take a question – knowing full well the question would be about the hearing.

    "I haven't been there. I haven't been involved in it. I don't know what they're saying, and we'll just have to see what happens," Clinton said.

    Clinton said he was vaguely aware beforehand of the line of questioning his attorney, David E. Kendall, planned to take at the hearing, accusing Starr of prosecutorial misconduct. And, while saying he is "not concerned about it," he expressed astonishment that another of his private attorneys, Robert S. Bennett, had been subpoenaed by the House Judiciary Committee, along with White House deputy counsel and close friend Bruce R. Lindsey.

    Bennett's subpoena "is without any precedent," Clinton said. "That is, as far as I know, there has never been a case where a person's lawyer was asked to come and testify. But you will have to talk with them."

    The phenomenon that Clinton aides have come to call a "parallel universe" – the official business of the presidency playing on one stage, while scandal plays simultaneously on another – is almost a ritual now for this White House team. And the phenomenon invariably seems to arise most strikingly while Clinton is traveling overseas.

    Often the scandal news is painfully ill-timed for the traveling head of state. Last year, Clinton turned testy with reporters when unfavorable developments in the Whitewater investigation followed him to Central America.

    But Clinton sometimes catches a break on the road. Last year, cameras showed him happily rapping on a bongo drum in his hotel room when a judge dismissed the Paula Jones sexual harassment case. (Clinton this month settled the case for $850,000 anyway after lawyers decided that his misleading answers about Monica S. Lewinsky might haunt him while the case is on appeal.)

    On this Asian trip, White House aides are reacting to the hearing mostly with an air of nonchalance. While aides often used to bristle at the idea that reporters would ask scandal-related questions while Clinton was overseas, many of them have concluded that the image of a popular president performing his job abroad is an effective contrast to the reports on what polls show is an unpopular impeachment proceeding.

    In response to a question about whether Congress should punish him, Clinton said: "There has been a lot of suffering. That is different from punishment, although it is hard to see the difference sometimes when you're going through it. For me, this long ago ceased to be a political issue or a legal issue and became a personal one, and every day I do my best to put it behind me personally."

    At the news conference here that was televised back home after midnight EST, he added: "It is simply not appropriate at this time for me to comment on what the Congress should do. I trust the American people and hope Congress will do the right thing in a nonpolitical way to get beyond the partisanship and move on. . . . I think the less I say about what should happen to me at this point, the better."

    Lockhart said Clinton summoned reporters at the Tokyo airport not because he was eager to talk about the hearing but because he knew that U.S. reporters were disappointed that they were able to ask only one question at an earlier appearance with Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi (thanks to aggressive Japanese press aides) when the schedule had promised two.

    Clinton had correctly discerned his audience. When a reporter at the Obuchi appearance asked about North Korea's missile program, some colleagues listening at the White House's traveling press center groaned in disappointment – fearing they would have no words from Clinton on what editors and producers back home regarded as the day's paramount story.

    When Clinton did speak, he said little. In the two-minute airport appearance, he said of the hearing that could, if some Republicans have their way, lead to his eviction from office: "I got only a cursory briefing." And: "I just got a general, cursory review of that." And again: "But I don't know very much about it. I've been here working on these economic and security issues, so I really can't say."

    Despite the air of obliviousness, Clinton's team here was kept aware, virtually by the minute, of any important developments in the hearing, according to officials here and in Washington. White House senior adviser Douglas Sosnik, who is in charge of the logistics of Clinton's trip, has supervised regular conference calls back to Washington with Chief of Staff John D. Podesta and other legal and political aides.

    And Lockhart managed to divert himself from sumo wrestling and other items on the summit agenda long enough to learn and recite precisely the same talking points that Clinton aides back in Washington were making about Starr's testimony. Lockhart upbraided Starr for what he called a belated disclosure that there were no impeachable offenses in the Whitewater, White House travel office and FBI files controversies.

    "Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs between the time Mr. Starr came to some of these conclusions and when he decided to tell us about it," Lockhart said. "And I think that's an astonishing piece of information."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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