World Sees Damage to U.S. Prestige
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 23, 1998; Page A01
PARIS, Sept. 22 -- The world's amazement at what is going on in Washington, the weeks of snickering and eye-rolling, now has turned to stunned revulsion and genuine worry.
"It makes me want to throw up," declared German Chancellor Helmut Kohl over the weekend before Monday's broadcast of President Clinton's Aug. 17 grand jury testimony.
To which columnist Pierre Georges, in today's French daily Le Monde, added, "We're all German chancellors now -- all of this is worthy of vomiting."
If in Washington the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal is about a beleaguered president and a zealous prosecutor, or about partisan wars between Democrats and Republicans, outside the United States it is about something overarching, about a menace to world leadership.
"Imagine someone in Afghanistan or Algeria or Kosovo seeing the president under these circumstances," declared an influential French government official. "The message they get is that the United States can be pushed around."
If Americans are so contemptuous of the authority of their president, this official said, if Americans so disrespect themselves as to take wild risks with sacred institutions, why should adversaries of the United States have any respect for the country either?
"Are you people nuts?" shouted a Paris taxi driver as he banged his steering wheel. "Why are you trying to weaken your country when the world needs it to be strong?" A man who called the Berlin bureau of The Washington Post also was shouting: "It just can't be that a 25-year-old girl turns the superpower U.S.A. upside down!"
In Cambodia, King Norodom Sihanouk was said by opposition leader Sam Rainsy to have dwelt on the Clinton scandal at length during lunch. Sihanouk reportedly observed that "if every country was as tough with its leader as the States, then there would be no head of state in any country. Everybody laughed, of course," Rainsy said.
"More seriously," he said, "we think this will tarnish the reputation, the honor, not of any leader but of the whole country."
The four hours of videotaped testimony was broadcast on CNN's international channel and on national television in Britain, Argentina, Italy, Israel, Canada, Switzerland, Lebanon and Greece, among many other countries. France was one exception: "We have no intention of wallowing in the pornographic character of this testimony," said one television news director. "We have no intention of surrendering to voyeurism," said another.
The world's news media drew historical analogies to the scandal, almost always in defense of Clinton, often mentioning the Salem witch trials and the McCarthyism of the 1950s, but also reaching back to the Spanish Inquisition. The Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad compared independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's methods to those of the Stasi, the former East Germany's ruthless security force. And the German daily Berliner Zeitung headlined its story: "Starr more successful than Stalin."
Most British newscasters and commentators took the position that Clinton's grand jury appearance was further evidence that the U.S. legal system has taken a turn for the bizarre. "One of the key questions," said Gavin Escher, a BBC commentator, "is whether we are watching a legal proceeding or a spat of sexual McCarthyism."
"Of those who did watch," wrote columnist Polly Toynbee in the Guardian, "many may think a little better of their president and a great deal worse of his grotesque persecutors."
Mexico City's daily La Jornada described the Clinton-Lewinsky affair as "the mother of all soap operas: Everything personal" -- a reference to the popular daily TV soap "Nada Personal," or "Nothing Personal."
A third of all families in Israel watched the testimony as it was broadcast on the first day of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and 80 percent in a subsequent poll of 500 households said Clinton should serve out his term.
The imagery used to frame the story in foreign media was pointed and often scathing. On the cover of Pagina 12, a liberal Buenos Aires newspaper, Clinton was depicted in his underpants with a headline that said, "Hit me and call me Nixon."
France's weekly L'Evenement du Jeudi presented a photo collage made to look like the controversial movie poster for the American movie "The People vs. Larry Flynt," with Clinton, in a stars-and-stripes loincloth, pinned Christ-like to a woman's mostly naked lower torso.
"It's the end of the American dream," lamented Georges-Marc Benamou in an accompanying editorial. "It's the end of that mythical America, the last hope of the free world against all the totalitarianisms of the 20th century."
In Canada, the Ottawa Citizen was somewhat less supportive, weighing in with a lengthy analysis by a political scientist from nearby Carleton University who compared Clinton to Jack Nicholson, Mick Jagger and David Bowie -- "his soul mates in permanent adolescence."
Tehran's daily Iran News described the latest episode in the scandal as "the outcome of too much prosperity," observing that the United States' twin obsessions with sex and money were captured by the broadcast of Clinton's testimony with the Dow Jones and NASDAQ averages constantly updated at the bottom of the screen.
"What is good for the United States and the world at this time is for President Clinton either to resign, thus relieving the nation and the world of a weakened, ineffective president, or for everyone -- the people and the media -- to leave him alone and let him carry out his duties as president," the newspaper said.
In China, where Clinton's grand jury testimony was the major attraction of the day on an Internet site, the government and the major newspapers had little to say. "This is a domestic matter of the United States, so I don't think it will affect U.S.-Sino ties," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao.
Former Italian president Francesco Cossiga said the Starr investigation was "a shameful attempt at political and moral lynching against a person who may well have some weaknesses . . . but who is being forced to suffer torture at the hands of a small man who beneath his lawyer's robe has created the figure of a 'state Peeping Tom.' "
In Argentina, columnist Daniel Della Costa struck a different note in today's El Cronista newspaper:
"The Clinton investigation shows a framework of institutional strength [in the United States] in which men and especially the president have less importance than the constitutional laws and procedures around them. . . . This strengthens, not weakens, a nation . . . [especially when] viewed from Argentina, where there are still leaders convinced that they are irreplaceable and who feel they are above the law."
Correspondents Anthony Faiola in Buenos Aires, Lee Hockstader in Jerusalem, Molly Moore in Mexico City, Steven Pearlstein in Toronto, T. R. Reid in London and Anne Swardson in Paris and special correspondent Petra B. Krischok in Berlin contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company