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Western Press Review: Clinton's Problems; The Pope's Cuba Visit

  • Joel Blocker
  • Dora Slaba



Prague, 26 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary is dominated by two quite different events, both of historic import. The first is President Bill Clinton's burgeoning political problems following allegations of personal misconduct in the White House, and their impact on the U.S.' international standing. The second is Pope John Paul II's five-day visit to communist-led Cuba, the first ever by a pontiff to the Caribbean island nation, which ended yesterday with an open-air mass in Havana attended by 500,000 Cubans, including President Fidel Castro.

NEW YORK TIMES: Clinton is distracted and so is the nation

Two editorials yesterday in major U.S. national newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, examine, respectively "The State of the Presidency" and "The Clinton Mortgage." The New York Times writes: "(Tomorrow) Bill Clinton will step into the house chamber to deliver the State of the Union address, traditionally the moment when presidents summon the nation to new goals. But in the second year of this term, Clinton is distracted and so is the nation by the state of the presidency."

The Times' editorial continues: "Anyone who witnessed the spiraling decline of the Nixon presidency (in the 1970s) could not wish such a fate on Clinton or the nation. If the allegations that Clinton consorted with a white House intern (Monica Lewinsky) and urged her to lie about it are unsupported by solid evidence, comparisons with Watergate will quickly dissipate. But in these initial days of turmoil in Washington, there is a need to understand the difficulties and dangers of crisis-bound governance." It adds: " The country faces pivotal domestic and foreign policy decisions that require energetic, focused presidential leadership. Whether Clinton can provide it will help determine whether the state of the nation remains as sound and prosperous in the months ahead as it is today."

WASHINGTON POST: The debilitating circumstance is self-inflicted

The Washington Post's editorial starts with these words: "President Clinton begins what was supposed to be strong year for him in suddenly, seriously weakened condition. The debilitating circumstance is self-inflicted. It derives as so often in Mr. Clinton's past from what has come to be short-handed in the press, for want of a better term, as the character issue." The paper's editorial goes on: " We say self-inflicted without meaning to prejudge the current eruption. We are in no better position than anyone else to do so at this still preliminary and confusing stage. Time enough for that later, unfortunately. The point at this stage is not that the charges against Mr. Clinton have been proved. It is that they are not disbelieved, not automatically, at any rate, even by close aides of the president and many of his supporters." The Washington Posts concludes: "(Clinton's) history is such that they are credible. Nor has his early response or that of the White House --once again to battle stations-- done much to instill confidence in his rather attenuated denials. Aides don't say it couldn't have happened; they say, we'll work our way out of this. The White House says in response to the allegations, we'll get back to you once we know the facts." The paper then asks: "What does that convey?"

LIBERATION: With or without Clinton, the United States remains the United States

Across the Atlantic, the French national daily Liberation also worries today, in an editorial signed by its foreign editor Jacques Amalric, about what it calls "Monica-gate's" effect on the U.S. ship of state. Amalric asks: "With its captain at bay, will the liner America transform itself little by little into a diplomatic Titanic? Put differently, if the threat of an impeachment of Bill Clinton is realized, should we expect the dissolution of the American world power, even a provisional redistribution of the (international) cards?" He answers both questions in the negative, writing: "As Watergate showed, with or without Clinton, the United States remains the United States. Its influence on world affairs does not derive from the will of one single man, even if he is the president....(And) the U.S.' current (world) hegemony is less the result of the will of a people than the unequal global balance of forces --not to speak of --in the case of Europe-- a hesitation to exist (as a world power)."

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG: How long can a world power be led by a 'joke figure' ?

In a commentary in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung today, entitled "The Clinton Affair: The Question of Character," Leo Wieland says that U.S. voters who elected Clinton to two four-year terms "knew about certain weaknesses of character (but) after all the issue was to vote for a president, not a saint." He writes further: "The private life of incumbent politicians is always under a spotlight. But the inevitable scandals mostly have little to do with 'amorous escapades,' nor with (an apparent) absolute incapacity to tell the truth. As a model 'substitute' king in a republic, a U.S. president acts as both the chief of state and a figure of high moral authority. His behavior and standard of values are the subject of constant tests, because they are regarded as directly related to his strength as a leader, his authority and capabilities for negotiations."

Wieland continues: "When he took on his appointment in 1993, Clinton promised to conduct "the most ethical government in the history' of the country. This was followed by 'Whitewater,' 'Paula (Jones)-gate,' 'FBI-File-gate,' 'Travel-gate' and other rat-tail affairs. Now a critical point has been reached when even Clinton supporters question whether his credit has simply been used up. How long can a world power be led by a 'joke figure,' who is exposed to ridicule every evening on national and international TV?"

FINANCIAL TIMES: Never in the short history of professional political consultancy can its practitioners been given a task of such awesome proportions

In a new analysis today, correspondent Gerard Baker of Britain's Financial Times examines what he calls the weekend's "councils of war to save (the) Clinton Presidency." He writes: "Cometh the hour, cometh the spin doctor (that is, a publicist who interprets events in a partisan fashion). Never in the short history of professional political consultancy can its practitioners been given a task of such awesome proportions. After a disastrous few days, President Bill Clinton and some of his most trusted advisers this week begin the fight in earnest to save his presidency."

The analysis continues: "They are led by that most seasoned of political operators, the First Lady, Hilary Clinton who the White House said at the weekend had gone into 'full battle mode.' She is understood to have been behind the decision to bring in two of the President's most trusted former advisers, Mickey Kantor and Harold Ickes, who returned to the White House this weekend." Baker adds: "But the task is enormous. Since news of the alleged affair between Monica Lewinsky and Mr. Clinton broke last Wednesday, the White House damage control operation has been extraordinarily lame....Other than the President's own far from convincing immediate responses to the claims, there has been no other official word."

NEW YORK TIMES: When I said that I never told anyone to lie --I told the truth

Back in the U.S. two New York Times columnists, conservative William Safire and liberal Anthony Lewis, yesterday examined Clinton's problems from diametrically opposed points of view. Safire, himself a former presidential speech writer (for Richard Nixon), wrote a "Speechwriter's Draft" of a speech he implies Clinton should soon deliver.

Safire's "draft" begins with Clinton saying: "My Fellow Americans: At long last I am able to say a few words of my own. It's been three weeks since the media maelstrom about my friendship with a fine young woman (Monica Lewinsky). During that time, I have been under an onslaught driven by leaks of a partisan prosecutor (Kenneth Starr, appointed special independent counsel to look into other charges involving Clinton). Although I promptly denied that any improper sexual relationship existed and, more important, denied that I ever told anyone to lie --many good people have been saying: 'Tell us what did happen.'"

And Safire's draft speech for Clinton continues with the President saying: "I had to wait and see what accusation would surface. After putting incredible pressure on a young woman (Lewinsky) --threatening her with jail if she did not tell him what he wanted --the partisan prosecutor was not able to force out evidence of a crime. In the end, in exchange for his promise not to prosecute her, his victim did offer up an exaggerated version of our relationship (as Lewinsky reportedly may do this week)--but she refused to say I ordered her to lie under oath. That would have been a crime. But I did not commit such a crime, despite what you hear from talking heads on television. When I said that I never told anyone to lie --I told the truth."

NEW YORK TIMES: The dangers of subjecting the presidency to a permanent prosecutorial inquisition are evident

That is how Republican Party-inclined Safire suggests the Democratic Party President defend himself in a speech about his current problems. But Democratic Party-inclined Anthony Lewis, a former New York Times legal affairs correspondent, concentrates less on defending Clinton than on attacking independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

Lewis writes: "No one can be sure now how the Clinton story will end. But I am sure of one thing. The (U.S.) Constitution was not meant to give us --and we should not want-- a system of government in which a roving inspector general with unaccountable power oversees the president of the United States. That is effectively what we have now. Kenneth Starr, appointed independent counsel three years ago to look into an Arkansas land deal, is investigating the president's sex life. Is there any charge against President Clinton that Starr could not bring within his jurisdiction?"

Lewis continues: "The sordid nature of the present charge --that the president had a sexual affair with a 21-year-old White House intern and told her to lie about it under oath-- makes it hard to see the issue of governance. But the dangers of subjecting the presidency to a permanent prosecutorial inquisition are evident if you think about how this matter has been handled. The former intern, Monica Lewinsky, told her story to a supposed friend, Linda Tripp. Tripp talked to a New York literary agent and on her advice taped Lewinsky's telephone confidences: 20 hours of them. Then she took the story and the tapes to Starr's office."

He concludes: " In defense of Starr, it is said that he really had no choice when Tripp came to him. Could he have turned her away? But...we do not want an office whose natural incentive, in fact unconstrained by any law or any court, is to go after the president of the U.S. Nor... do we want prosecutors looking into the sex lives of presidents. Or tawdry tales of their investigations filling our newspapers and television screens."

NEW YORK TIMES: The embargo has failed to strangle the Castro regime or force it to change

Turning to the papal visit to Cuba, today's New York Times carries an editorial entitled "The Pope's Message to Washington." The paper writes: "Those who oppose America's obsolete trade embargo on Cuba found an eloquent ally in Pope John Paul II as he visited the island in recent days. It was not just John Paul's criticism of embargoes, which he had made before, but the attention he drew to humanitarian needs in Cuba that Washington has stubbornly ignored." The editorial continues: "The embargo is an embarrassing anachronism. It was imposed by Dwight Eisenhower, when Nikita Khrushchev led the Soviet Union and Cuba was seen as a Soviet base. The embargo was strengthened with the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 and the Helms-Burton law of 1996. Its longevity is mainly due to the clout of the Cuban exile community (in the U.S.). The embargo has failed to strangle the Castro regime or force it to change. The pope's request for the release of political prisoners highlights the fact that some 600 Cubans are in jail for peaceful expression of their views, many in appalling conditions....Castro's political control is as airtight as ever."

INDEPENDENT: Communism is only one of the obstacles in the way of the Pope's struggler to win (Cuban) hearts and minds

Two British dailies, the Independent and the Financial Times, run news analyses today on the Pope's visit to Cuba. The Independent's Susie Morgan and Martin Longfield stress what the headline calls John Paul's "Attacks (on) Capitalism, Communism (and) Cults." They write: "Communism is only one of the obstacles in the way of the Pope's struggler to win (Cuban) hearts and minds. There is also the powerful Santeria religion, a mixture of Catholicism and Afro-Caribbean spiritualism. The Pope attacked 'cults and spiritualism' --a pointed reference to the fact that the Sister of Charity, whom he crowned in a special ceremony yesterday, is also a major goddess of Santeria called 'ochun'....Unlike the formerly persecuted Catholics, the regime has encouraged Santeria because its theology does not represent the kind of threat to the communist orthodoxy that Christianity does."

FINANCIAL TIMES: Unprecedented criticism was received without comment by the Cuban authorities

In their analysis The Financial Times' two co-reporters, Pascal Fletcher and Henry Hamman, focus on what they call the Pope's "appeal for reconciliation" in Cuba. They write: "The Pope's sermon at the mass, on the last day of his first visit to communist Cuba, contained a forceful appeal for tolerance and reconciliation which was even-handed in its criticism of atheist states and 'capitalist neo--liberalism.'" The analysis continues: "The Pope's address was the culmination of his five-day visit in which he did not flinch from calling for greater freedoms in Cuba's one-party communist system, including more space for the Catholic Church....This unprecedented criticism of the Cuban regime was broadcast live on Cuban TV, and was received without comment by the Cuban authorities."

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG: Some things are likely to be different in Cuba after the Pope's visit

In today's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, commentator Walter Haubrich writes from Havana: "The Holy Father is flying back to Rome, but Castro is going to remain on the island. Such sentences could often be heard in Havana on Sunday. The hope of many Cubans that much will change with the Pope's visit could meet with broad disappointment. Some may be pleased that the...high profile visit has been put behind them, that unusual, indeed even unseemly words are no longer to be heard and that the state --that is, the Communist Party-- is again holding everything in its hand." He continues: "(Yet) some things are likely to be different in Cuba after the Pope's visit, which does not necessarily mean that much will alter quickly. The Church will profit the most from the publicity of the Pope's visit and the wave of sympathy that met the Pope. Roman Catholics need no longer hide for fear that a clear admittance of their faith may harm them. But Cuba is not Poland: The Catholic religion is not a common denominator on the island for the interests and goals of the entire nation."
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