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  •   Clinton News Conference Turns Strange

    Bill Clinton and Ghana's President Jerry John Rawlings
    President Clinton shares a laugh with Ghana's President Jerry John Rawlings at the White House Wednesday. (AFP)
    By John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, February 25, 1999; Page A14

    The news conference started with a questioner asking President Clinton if he wished to respond to news reports about an Arkansas woman accusing him of sexual assault in the 1970s.

    It ended with a virtual seminar between reporters and two heads of state on the merits of people holding dual citizenship in the United States and the African nation of Ghana.

    Presidential news conferences do not get much stranger than this. For 51 minutes yesterday, Clinton fielded questions with visiting Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings at the Old Executive Office Building, in a session that at times seemed almost farcically unscripted.

    There were little lectures from Rawlings, a former military dictator who has since been democratically elected, about questions he did not like. And there was a harangue from someone at the back of the room who badgered the two leaders about Cuba policy.

    But the exchange also offered some vivid glimpses into Washington political reality in the wake of the impeachment drama. What once would have been a sensational event a president being quizzed about lurid sexual allegations has become somehow nearly routine after a year of the Lewinsky scandal.

    Clinton curtly referred UPI's Helen Thomas, the dean of the White House press corps, to a statement from his lawyer when she asked, obliquely, about the allegations leveled recently by Arkansas nursing home owner Juanita Broaddrick that he forced her to have sex in a hotel room in 1978. But the exchange that White House aides had been nervously awaiting barely caused a ripple.

    The day also showed how quickly Clinton's agenda, at least as measured by the questions he receives, has returned to more conventional subjects just two weeks after the capital was consumed by the Senate trial over whether he should be evicted from office.

    Clinton began the session with his expression drawn and his voice flat. As the news conference continued, he became voluble and even lighthearted.

    He even came to the defense of White House reporters when a Ghanaian reporter complained that none of his American colleagues was asking about Africa. "It's really my fault," Clinton said, laughing, "because I don't let them ask me enough questions on other occasions, so I'm forcing them to use this opportunity to pepper me."

    Clinton, in fact, has not held a solo news conference for 10 months, though he has taken questions at several joint news conferences with heads of state.

    As usually happens on these occasions, many of the questions Clinton received were far removed from anything related to a head-of-state summit. He was asked whether he could work constructively with Republican congressional leaders, who came out of a White House meeting Tuesday refusing to answer directly whether they could trust the president.

    Clinton said that House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) probably dodged the question for their own political reasons, "since any answer they give makes it more difficult for them, potentially at least, within their caucus or within the country, depending on what answer they give."

    "The answer they ought to give," Clinton suggested, "and the answer they ought to have deeply embedded in their minds and hearts is that their feelings are not important here, just like my feelings are not important. We have an oath to fulfill, a responsibility to fulfill. We were hired to do the public's business, and they expect us to do it."

    Clinton and Rawlings put in pleas for Americans to look past Africa's problems toward its successes, with both leaders claiming that foreign investors in recent years in Africa have been reaping returns of 28 percent.

    Rawlings, who speaks fluent but sometimes halting English, put in a plug for his proposal to allow African Americans to apply for dual citizenship in Ghana as a way of formalizing their historic link to the continent.

    Clinton called dual citizenship "quite a clever idea."

    But Rawlings may have dampened the enthusiasm that some feel for becoming citizens of a nation with a history of military coups when he issued a reminder. "Hold on. Hold on, Mr. President," he said. "On one condition, that if you fall foul of the laws and regulations of my country, I'll be able what do you call it, the judiciary? The police? you know, the laws of my country will take their course without the American government attempting to intervene to say, 'This is a citizen of my country.'"

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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