Turning his attention from foreign affairs to a political problem at home, President Clinton today defended his judicial appointments and suggested that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Robert J. Dole was out of line for criticizing a president while he was overseas.
"I like the old-fashioned position that used to prevail that people didn't attack the president when he was on a foreign mission for the good of the country," Clinton told reporters here. "It has been abandoned with regularity in the last 3 1/2 years, but I don't think that makes it any worse a rule."
Clinton's comments came as he was asked to respond to a speech Dole gave Friday in Washington complaining that the administration has appointed liberal judges who espouse a soft-on-crime philosophy.
Though protesting the domestic criticism while traveling abroad, Clinton seemed ready with an answer. "I will just say this," he said. "Senator Dole voted for 98 percent of the judges that I appointed, and the ratings system for judges -- going back to the Eisenhower administration -- by the American Bar Association indicates that I have appointed the best-qualified judges of any president since Mr. Eisenhower was in this job."
Clinton promised a more lengthy retort upon his return from a round-the-world trip, which ends Sunday after meetings with Russian President Boris Yeltsin. But his senior aides saw no reason to wait so long.
"This whole attack is kind of a coverup for their failure to deal with the crime issue in this Congress," White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta, traveling with Clinton, said in an interview with CNN. Panetta criticized Dole for opposing the 1994 crime bill, which gave federal subsidies to local police departments to pay for more officers, and for supporting a repeal of the crime bill's ban on certain weapons used disproportionately in crimes. He called Dole's speech a "little desperate."
But White House officials know as well as anyone the potential resonance of the issue. Last month, after Republicans criticized a ruling by a Clinton appointee, U.S. District Judge Harold Baer Jr. of New York, White House press secretary Michael McCurry said Clinton shared their disappointment and held open the possibility that the president would seek Baer's resignation if the judge didn't reverse himself. The White House later retracted that threat, although Baer did reverse himself. This prompted a debate over whether the judiciary was being improperly subjected to political pressure.
Clinton also spoke out on another domestic issue today, praising Congress for passing an anti-terrorism bill but saying he regretted that lawmakers had ignored some of his proposals. He said he wanted police to have more leeway to keep suspected terrorists under surveillance and that prosecutors should have more latitude to investigate terror cases involving machine guns and explosive devices.
"These and other important anti-terrorism measures were left on the cutting room floor," Clinton said in his weekly radio address. "But this bill still makes important progress. . . . It may not go as far as I would like, but it does strike a real blow against terrorism, and I will be happy to sign it."