His wife is moving to New York, and his vice president doesn't have time for lunch anymore, but President Clinton expressed only affection for those two candidates yesterday, talking as if he'd heard no hint that they've tried to separate themselves from him a bit in recent weeks.
In a 62-minute news conference, the president ranged from Chechnya to Syria to Cuba, testily defending his 1993 health care plan and admitting to unrealistic expectations at last week's trade meeting in Seattle. Some of his warmest comments were on behalf of the first lady--who raised eyebrows by calling their new home in New York "my house"--and Vice President Gore, who says he wants to win the 2000 presidential race with minimal help from Clinton.
"Obviously he's not around as much," the president said of Gore, sounding a bit wistful as he faced reporters in a State Department auditorium. "We don't have lunch every week, and I miss that terribly. But he was [at the White House] all day today. . . . And you know, I think he'd be a great president."
He was equally magnanimous regarding Hillary Rodham Clinton, who soon will move into their newly purchased home in Chappaqua, N.Y., where she is running for the U.S. Senate, although she will continue to perform her duties as first lady.
"I'm happy for her, for the decision that she made," the president said. "She'll be there a lot, she'll be here when she can. I'll go up there when I can. And we'll be together as much as we can. . . . It's not the best arrangement in the world but it's something that we can live with for a year. And I love the house. You know, we picked it out and we like it, and I'm looking forward to living there when I leave here."
The news conference was vintage Clinton, displaying his command of a wide range of foreign and domestic issues while ricocheting between humility one moment and defensiveness the next. Reflecting on Russia's aggression in Chechnya, he said: "Most of life's greatest wounds--for individuals and for countries--are self-inflicted."
That prompted a question on whether "the pain you went through last year"--meaning the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal and impeachment--was self-inflicted or caused by overzealous prosecutors. Clinton gave his tersest reply of the day. "The mistake I made was self-inflicted," he said evenly, "and the misconduct of others was not."
Regarding the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, the president said he mistakenly thought other nations were prepared to raise the importance of workplace standards and environmental safeguards when discussing trade. "There were real differences that we thought we could bridge unrelated to labor and the environment, which we couldn't," he said.
But Clinton was far less humble on the subject of the failed 1993-94 health plan, largely drafted by his wife and one of the biggest setbacks of his presidency.
Agreeing that more Americans now lack health insurance, he said: "Hillary and I said when the health care plan went down that the number of people uninsured would go up. . . . So what happened is exactly what we predicted would happen." He suggested the blame belongs to "all those people who attacked me and said I was trying to socialize medicine--which is a ridiculous charge."
The only question that seemed to flummox the president was the last one, when a reporter said, "The top seven West Wing jobs in your administration have all been held by whites; 26 people have had the jobs . . . "
"I disagree with that," Clinton interrupted. "What are they?"
The reporter named the chief of staff, national security adviser, domestic policy chief, top economic adviser, White House counsel, press secretary and senior adviser/counselor."
Clinton, looking slightly chastened, said, "There were a couple of people of color that I tried to get to do those jobs that preferred other jobs in the administration. . . . All I can tell you is I have never not tried to recruit minorities for any job that was open in the White House, and I have never followed a quota system. I have had more blacks who have served in my Cabinet, more Hispanics who served in my Cabinet, more people--more people from Asia have been appointed in my administration than any previous administration by far. It's not even close."
Excerpts of President Clinton's news conference are available at www.washingtonpost.com
CAPTION: The president at his State Department news conference, where he touched on many subjects in 62-minute effort.