Speech Drew a World of Opinions
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 19, 1998; Page A14
PARIS, Aug. 18Headline writers, television pundits, politicians and ordinary people around the world beheld the spectacle of President Clinton's public confession Monday night and spoke their minds most of them made up long before.
The onlookers were blunt, they were sad, they were cynical, they were admiring.
"This is a great moment in American history," said Wang Xiaofeng, a pedicab driver, as he lounged on a darkened Beijing street waiting for a fare. "It shows two things that Clinton can be exposed as a liar in front of everybody and that your country won't collapse because of it. This could never happen in China," he said.
"What's the news? That presidents lie?" asked Guillermo Amorin, 35, a Buenos Aires chemist. "We've known that for years. We just assume they lie; we only get surprised when they tell the truth."
Reem Nazer, a 22-year-old acting student sitting in a bustling Beirut coffee shop, declared: "A man is a man all over the world. Clinton has power, that means he can do what he wants. . . . But because he is president, he should not do such things in the open, he should do it in secret."
In a front-page cartoon in the Paris daily Le Monde today, a teary-eyed Bill Clinton reaches out to Lady Liberty and says, "I'm so sorry." To which she replies, "Take your hand off me."
A headline in the British tabloid The Sun today: "Monica munches cookies in front of TV as Clinton sweats in front of jury."
Advice to Hillary Rodham Clinton in today's Italian daily Il Giornale: "You ought to pack your bags."
"We're having a great time with the Clinton story," enthused Paul Martins, deputy editor of the big German tabloid Bild. "It's not only the sex stuff it's a president misleading his country. And yet he's still so beloved."
For better or worse, the world was definitely paying attention. The Clinton testimony and his evening address to the nation was page one and broadcast-leading news, and a reliable generator of editorial scathing and saucy detail.
"Mr Clinton has contrived to insult the intelligence of the American people with a shifty, mealy-mouthed and legalistic ramble, in which he unblushingly claimed that his earlier claim not to have had 'sexual relations' was legally accurate," huffed today's Evening Standard in London. At the end of his term, the British paper said in an editorial, Clinton "will slink from the world stage, a greedy and sexually incontinent creep."
"Clinton says he only made Monica randy," laughed the cover of the tabloid Ojo in Peru, where the topic overshadowed talk of President Alberto Fujimori naming a new prime minister. In neighboring Ecuador, what Latin America knows as "Sexgate" eclipsed some coverage of negotiations to avoid a fresh border war with Peru.
But there were exceptions.
Russian media gave the story little attention it was broadcast after a report of a balcony falling off a building in a provincial town on Russia's leading national TV station. Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba's Communist Party, ran the story on the bottom of the seventh page of an eight-page edition.
And at the Vatican, the semi-official daily Osservatore Romano covered violence in Congo and Rwanda, the Russian financial crisis, Nigeria's political situation, the Belfast bomb, weapons inspections in Iraq, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright's visits to Tanzania and Kenya, and a bank holdup on an island south of Rome that netted the gunmen about $250. But not a word on the Clinton story.
Many commentators lamented that American democracy would be besmirched by the whole business. "We don't always agree with the Americans," said French analyst Alexandre Adler on a TV talk show today, "but we don't win a thing when the world's leading power is sunk in the mire of scandal and low comedy. It's not good for democracy."
Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi spoke in a similar vein. "I hope that we will see a recovery of a strong American presidency and the conclusion of Clinton's mandate with the level of political activity that we expect from him," Prodi told television network TeleMonteCarlo.
The popular Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda was chagrined to note that "the next American president will be a closed and sullen prude. This is the lesson from the long-suffering Bill Clinton."
In other countries, the Clinton affair was an occasion to reaffirm that politicians are the same everywhere.
One leader quick to voice sympathy with Clinton was Philippine President Joseph Estrada, known for 10 children born of his wife and some of his many extramarital affairs. During his recent presidential campaign, Estrada was known to joke that "Clinton and I both have sex scandals he has the scandals and I just have sex."
After a cabinet meeting today that followed Clinton's confession, Estrada said he "definitely" agreed that presidents deserved their private space. "We are only human beings. We have to have private lives also," he said.
Clinton's admission of adultery reminded many Israelis of their own prime minister's rocky marital history. As a contender for leadership of the opposition Likud party in 1993, Binyamin Netanyahu went on Israel Television to admit to having cheated on his third and present wife Sara.
Some wondered whether the words Netanyahu used then to salvage his own political career, in part by accusing political rivals of trying to blackmail him, had wound their way into Clinton's discourse. "It is a personal matter and will remain a personal matter," Netanyahu said at the time. "If I have a debt, and I have a debt on this matter, it is to my wife, my family and no one else. . . . Politicians have private lives too. There are problems in many families."
Netanyahu on holiday at the Sea of Galilee with his wife and two sons told reporters on Monday that Clinton is a "friend of Israel and I'm sure he will overcome all the problems."
That was just the problem for Iraq's most influential newspaper, Babel, which perceives a conspiracy. "The basic Zionist game has become clear," it said today: Israel and the U.S. Jewish lobby hatched the Monica Lewinsky affair in a plot to unseat Clinton and install Vice President Gore, "known for his pro-Zionist stand."
The Iraqi paper even seemed to feel sentimental about the party of Desert Storm. Gore's "flattery" of Israel to win the presidency in 2000, it said, "would guarantee a defeat of the Republicans, who are the best of the worst."
The scandal broke earlier this year just as Clinton was pressing Netanyahu to make concessions to the Palestinians. Plot or no plot, the scandal has clearly let Israel off the hook, according to analysts across the spectrum in Israel.
"Thanks to the fact that the president's head is otherwise engaged, there is no pressure on us, that is clear and simple," said Nissan Slomiansky, a member of the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, from the right-wing National Religious Party. Said Yossi Sarid of the left-wing Meretz party: "If Monica Lewinsky hadn't existed, Binyamin Netanyahu would have had to invent her."
The way Americans handle their worst scandals suggests important silver linings to many foreign observers, especially those who lack political freedoms.
In Jordan, Saleh al-Qallab, writing in the al-Arab al-Yawm newspaper, wrote, "In Third World countries, governed by demigods who have come to power on the backs of tanks and usurped power, no power on earth can bring the ruler, who considers himself the envoy of the divine power, to the courtroom until after he has fallen."
A world away, Chen Shao, a middle-aged government worker fanning himself in a Beijing park after sunset this evening, said: "Clinton admitted he was wrong. When has a Chinese leader done that in front of us? I tell you, the mistakes here are really big ones economic errors, not just playing with a little honey."
Washington Post correspondents Anthony Faiola in Buenos Aires, Lee Hockstader in Jerusalem, Serge Kovaleski in Miami, John Pomfret in Beijing, Keith B. Richburg in Hong Kong; special correspondents Andrew Kramer in Moscow, Teresa Horwich in London and Petra B. Krischok in Berlin; and wire services contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company