Watching the political stage shift inevitably toward his wife and vice president, President Clinton yesterday mused at length on his remaining time in office, insisting he'll watch next year's elections as "Joe Citizen" but adding that he's "keying up," not "winding down," as a public figure.
Even as he said his job "is not to handicap this horse race," the president suggested several pointed questions designed to highlight his administration's accomplishments--and, in turn, to tout Vice President Gore's campaign to replace him. "Every political question you ask me from now on," he told reporters, "I'm going to pretend that I'm living back in Little Rock already and I'm working on my presidential library and I'm sitting here as a voter saying, 'Where do they stand? What will they do?' "
In a wide-ranging, 70-minute White House news conference, Clinton displayed an array of emotions--from a misty-eyed recollection of a visit by John F. Kennedy Jr. to the White House to raucous bantering with reporters. He sharply attacked congressional Republicans' proposals for deep tax cuts and defended his plan for prescription drug coverage for the elderly.
The president lauded Gore's and Hillary Rodham Clinton's candidacies, but also began distancing himself from the political arena he has dominated for the past seven years. He said that "life has its rhythms" and he would find other ways "to be a useful citizen of my country and the world for the rest of my life."
Clinton employed an unconventional argument to address the popularity of Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R), who is leading Gore in the polls. Asked about a poll showing that 50 percent of Americans want "a change from Clinton administration policies," while only 38 percent do not, Clinton said he agreed with those in the majority--but insisted that does not lead to support of Bush.
"You should want continued change," he said. "The question is, should we change in a way that builds on what has been done and goes beyond it--which is what I would argue--or should you change and go back to the policies we were following when we had $290 billion deficits and we averaged over 7 percent unemployment for 12 years?"
The president never mentioned Bush by name, but his message was clear. Clinton defeated the governor's father, then-President George Bush, in 1992, running on a platform of economic change.
While he praised Gore, Clinton acknowledged two of the vice president's political challenges: Voters tend to give him little credit, and he's often overshadowed by the president.
Gore has accomplished more than any vice president in history, Clinton said, but "I don't think the American people know that yet." Citing a political example that might make Gore wince, Clinton said his strong support "is a mixed blessing, as you say, because people want to see any vice president out there on his own. If you go back and look at where Richard Nixon was in 1959, you'll see the same sort of thing." Nixon, then Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice president, narrowly lost the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy.
As for his wife's likely run for the Senate from New York, Clinton said: "If she's successful, I will happily go to the Senate spouses' meeting. . . . I have never known anybody who didn't run for office who was a more effective, more consistently committed, completely passionate public citizen than her."
Clinton tiptoed carefully around several foreign issues. He refused to be pinned down on whether the United States would intervene militarily if China attacked Taiwan, which has angered Beijing by asserting more independence from the mainland.
"Our policy is clear," Clinton said. "We favor the one-China policy," which views Taiwan as technically still a part of China.
"The understanding we have had all along with both China and Taiwan is that the differences between them would be resolved peacefully," Clinton said. "If that were not to be the case, under the Taiwan Relations Act, we would be required to view it with the gravest concern." Some people read the law to require the United States to respond militarily if Taiwan is attacked, and Clinton noted that in 1996 the United States dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region after China fired missiles near Taiwan.
Regarding the Middle East, the president described a low-key telephone call to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has criticized Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's comments on the region's peace process. Clinton, who met this week with Barak, said he urged Arafat to "have this one-on-one meeting [with Barak], hear him out, think it through, and if he wanted to talk to me again after the meeting occurred, that I would be happy to talk to him."
Clinton said he hoped for "some positive, concrete commitments" for aid from industrialized countries when he and other world leaders meet next week in Sarajevo to discuss rebuilding the Balkans region after the war over Kosovo.
"Frankly, there may be some differences of opinion" on what constitutes humanitarian aid as opposed to economic aid for rebuilding, he said. Referring to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, he said, "I tend to take a rather narrow view of it, because I don't think that we should, in effect, reward Mr. Milosevic's political control by doing things which are not humanitarian in nature."
CAPTION: President Clinton said at news conference he would find ways "to be a useful citizen of my country and the world for the rest of my life."
CAPTION: President Clinton at a wide-ranging, 70-minute White House news conference. Clinton covered topics including the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., the Republican proposal for deep tax cuts and Medicare prescription drug coverage for the elderly.