Prime Minister Stands by Clinton as He Avoids Questions About Lewinsky
By David Maraniss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 7, 1998; Page A1
They stood together and faced the scandal-lapping pack of American and British journalists for 44 minutes, Mr. President and Mr. Prime Minister, generational cohorts, ideological allies, big brother and little brother, friends in need. They knew what was coming even before the first question about Monica Lewinsky was flung up at them, and they did everything they could to change the subject, lecturing the room about the distance between the concerns of their publics and the obsessions of their interrogators at this most uncommon news conference. It was war, peace and prosperity vs. sex, lies and audiotapes.
President Clinton, in trouble on his home turf, seemed disconcerted and almost mournful at first, his spirit as dulled as his baggy eyes. He diverted the first round of sex questions by insisting he was honor-bound by the legal system not to answer them. Midway through, having survived that far without explosion or embarrassment, he sprang to life, becoming alternately vigorous and sarcastic, here evoking Churchillian grit with a vow to "Never!" resign, there dodging a query by laughing, pausing for effect, flattering a journalist "That's good! That's good," he said to CNN's Wolf Blitzer and ultimately not answering the question.
Tony Blair, for his part, arrived at this late-morning political performance art with a well-defined and simpler role. He was there to stand by his man, for better and worse, which he did from beginning to end. After sharing the heights of world leadership with Clinton for nine months, Blair said, he found the president "someone I could trust, someone I could rely upon, someone I am proud to call not just a colleague but a friend." Blair kept on smiling throughout the news conference and seemed willing if needed to jump over his lectern to assist his friend; at one point he gently interrupted Clinton to ask, "Do you want me to come back in now?"
For nearly an hour, the two men struggled to act as though everything is going as usual, nothing out of the ordinary here. They fielded 16 questions from reporters, 10 of them variations on the indelicate sexual theme that has dominated Washington for nearly three weeks. When it was over, a member of Blair's delegation noted dryly that it was milder than interrogations in London, while veteran British journalist Peter Riddell declared that it was "one of the weirdest experiences I've ever been through."
Many of Blair's answers seemed directed as much to his country as to the people here. Every time he defended Clinton and argued that public accomplishments were more important than private affairs, he was also, in effect, dealing with the controversy within his administration concerning Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who left his wife after it was found he had been carrying on a longtime affair with one of his assistants. With Cook, as with Clinton, questions have been raised about his ability to concentrate on world problems while being troubled by allegations about his personal life.
While he may have impressed Washington during this visit with his charm and good humor, Blair's relationship with his own press corps has been testy. The first British journalist called upon to ask a question yesterday seemed to be lecturing Blair as much as questioning him. "Is it not time . . . to drop the pretense that this is simply business as usual?" asked Michael Brunson of ITN in London. "And far from dodging the point as you did, Prime Minister, yesterday, when you were asked about the private lives of public figures, should you not both be saying that the public have the right to expect the very highest standard in the private lives of public politicians?"
"Well, Michael, I hope we do that," Blair said before shifting his answer to the realm of public issues.
The odd assortment of subjects that Blair and Clinton found themselves dealing with are by no means new to prime ministers and presidents. Harold McMillan, Britain's prime minister during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, once said that while he had a fondness for John F. Kennedy, he would get fed up with him because "he spent half his time thinking about adultery, the other half about secondhand ideas passed on by his advisers." Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill thought of themselves as friends and equals, as did Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Clinton and Blair are not unique in that sense, but they bring something new as the first members of the baby boom generation to lead their countries. They share not only a fondness for rock music and boomer cultural icons such as Stevie Wonder and Elton John, who performed at Thursday's state dinner, but also a similar political ideology: Both brought their parties back to power by moving them from left to center.
At the state dinner, Blair seemed decidedly the more chipper of the two men, several guests said, and was far more the topic of conversations at many of the tables. Clinton's troubles were largely avoided during table chatter. Some guests did take note of how the first lady's smile disappeared and a cloud seemed to come over her face when Blair, during his toast, glancingly dealt with Clinton's troubles by offering his loyal support. For most of the night, however, the first lady seemed to be in remarkably good spirits. She and Clinton and Vice President Gore and Tipper Gore danced until past one o'clock. "The two women were really rocking," said one guest. Along with the president, the only guests who seemed worn down were Clinton's aides.
At the news conference the next morning, Clinton seemed to talk his way out of a funk. His sarcastic response to Blitzer who had asked him whether he had anything to say to Lewinsky, the young White House intern with whom he is alleged to have had an affair was one of three times when the president used humor as an effective means of self-protection. After Blair had been asked why he was speaking out so strongly for his friend, Clinton grabbed hold of his lectern with two hands, paused for effect and said of Blair's loyalty, "You ask: Do I appreciate it?" Pause again. "No, I . . . " Soft, nervous laughter filled the room as Clinton eased into the vernacular. "He should have come here and jumped all over me."
Several minutes later, Clinton was reminded of Hillary Clinton's contention that they were the victims of a "vast right-wing conspiracy," and was asked whether he could explain how the conspiracy works. He smiled again, his eyes brightening, and said, "Now you know I've known her for a long time, the first lady. And she's very smart. And she's hardly ever wrong about anything." Laughter again. "But I don't believe I should amplify on her observation in this case."
Not amplifying was his primary response throughout the event. He variously said he could not answer because he was "honoring the rules of the investigation" by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr or bound by a judge's gag order in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit. In both cases, according to legal experts, Clinton could, if he wanted to, talk more than he has without finding himself in trouble.
While declining to answer questions, he did take the time to obliquely criticize his adversaries for violating the gag order or leaking information to the press. He also offered an answer of sorts to a question about his alleged relationship with Gennifer Flowers. During the 1992 campaign, Clinton denied that he had sex with Flowers. According to recent reports, during a deposition in the Jones case, he acknowledged he had had a sexual relationship with Flowers. He offered this explanation at the news conference yesterday: "I told the truth in my deposition with regard to that issue, and I also did in 1992 . . . and you just have to know that, and that I think it will become apparent as this case plays itself out, that I did in fact do that."
Clinton's advisers and consultants seemed relieved that he had survived the news conference without a great to-do, and some of them were delighted with his style, especially his light sarcastic jabs. Political strategist James Carville, watching the performance on television, said he would try to answer the question to himself before Clinton uttered his answer aloud. When Clinton responded to Blitzer with his head-shaking "That's good." Carville said he muttered to himself, "Damn, that's good." That single answer, or non-answer, Carville said, revealed "everything you need to know about Clinton: Suck up to Wolf. Like to say more. Empathetic. Funny. You could write a book just on that answer."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company