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Western Press Review: Clinton Makes Admission, Russia Devaluates Ruble

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 18 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Two major -- if unconnected -- events dominate Western press commentary this morning: U.S. President Bill Clinton's admission last night to the American people that he had what he described as "misled" them seven months ago in denying what he called an "inappropriate" relation with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and Russia's effective devaluation of the ruble earlier yesterday. Analysts on both sides of the Atlantic assess the importance of the two events.

NEW YORK TIMES: Clinton let slip a vital chance to give a healing report

The New York Times says that "if a grudging admission of sexual indiscretion with Monica Lewinsky and another angry attack on (independent counsel) Kenneth Starr could end the crisis in his presidency, then Bill Clinton finished his five-minute address to the nation Monday night in good shape. But," the paper adds in an editorial, "by our lights, Clinton let slip a vital chance to give a healing report to the nation and to begin the task of rehabilitating his character in the eyes of the public. Instead he went for the time-tested blend of minimal confession and contained tantrum that got him elected twice, but will not make him a leader who will be missed once he leaves Washington." The editorial goes on: "By his lawyer's account, Clinton used another vintage technique during his four hours of grand jury testimony (yesterday afternoon Washington time), refusing to answer questions that did not suit him. The outcome is hardly satisfactory for those who had hoped Clinton would meet this challenge in a less characteristic way. What the nation got instead was another blast of the familiar dichotomous blarney (that is, mere ambivalent rhetoric). His touching admission of lying to his wife was coupled with the insulting contention that his earlier denial, under oath, of a sexual relationship was 'legally accurate.'"

The New York Times, which supported Clinton in his two successful presidential campaigns, also says, in a tone of deep disappointment: "What an opportunity was wasted Monday night for Clinton to shed the wearisome burden of all those ever-changing accounts of personal behavior that have characterized his political career for so many years." Its editorial concludes: "By and by, we will see entire the lineaments of Clinton's fate and his standing among the presidents. It can never be what he and the nation hoped, for he long ago chose to manipulate the narrative of his political life in such a way that it was necessary for him to remember everything he said along the way. What we will know in time, of course, is whether he has so falsified his conversation with the American people that he could not, even in the hour of his greatest peril and through the simple agency of truth, position himself to receive their forgiveness."

WASHINGTON POST: Things may not be so simple

In a commentary for the Washington Post today, Dan Balz notes: "No president has ever been forced to address such personal issues in a nationally televised address, and President Clinton Monday night went further than he ever has in taking responsibility for his private behavior and expressing regret for pain he has caused his family. 'I misled people, including even my wife,' he said. 'I deeply regret that.' But," Balz goes on, "this was no mea culpa speech. It was a Clinton the country has seen before when he faced a political crisis, a Clinton as defiant as he was contrite. Having bared his soul, he asked the country to take his side in a bitter political battle that has convulsed Washington for the past seven months. In that sense, the tone of his speech represented one of the biggest gambles of his presidency." The commentary suggests that Clinton had hoped to put the Lewinsky matter behind him yesterday: "But things may not be so simple," Balz warns. "Energy expended on a continuation of partisan warfare between the White House and the independent counsel could continue to sap the administration's strength and diminish Clinton's ability to focus the country on the issues his advisers believe are the route to his political salvation. Beyond that question of putting the Starr investigation behind him is the larger question of the president's political rehabilitation."

WASHINGTON POST: Clinton's angry denunciation of the independent counsel is a high-stakes strategy

A news analysis in the same paper by Susan Schmidt and Ruth Marcus is titled: "The Legal Gamble: To Say Just Enough." The two analysts write: "President Clinton's defiant stance Monday provided independent counsel...Starr with a minimum of information and appeared to be a gamble that Starr will be left without enough evidence to bring a criminal case against him or be able to convince Congress to launch impeachment proceedings. The centerpiece of Clinton's defense, as he told the country Monday night, is that, while admittedly misleading, his denial under oath last January that he had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky was 'legally accurate' and therefore did not constitute perjury. He asserted he did not encourage anyone to lie or obstruct justice in any way." The analysis continues: "Clinton's angry denunciation of the independent counsel and his refusal to answer questions that prosecutors put to him Monday is a high-stakes strategy in the face of an independent counsel who could reissue a subpoena to compel additional testimony from the President -- and seek to have him held in contempt if he refuses to comply. Starr could also still decide to seek a criminal indictment of the president -- although that is the least likely of the possible scenarios -- and is writing a report to Congress that will outline evidence of possible grounds for impeachment."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: Clinton's legal problems may not be over

Los Angeles Times' analysts David G. Savage and Ronald J. Ostrow also believe that, "despite (his) admission, Clinton's legal problems may not be over." They call the speech a "tactical retreat," writing: "Starr's team of aggressive prosecutors has believed for several years that Clinton is evasive and scheming, and they are unlikely to be satisfied just because he has admitted one falsehood. Much depends on what evidence the prosecutors have obtained and how the president handled the prosecutor's many other questions. David Kendall, the president's personal attorney, (said last night) that while Clinton had testified 'truthfully,' that in response to 'a few highly intrusive questions...he gave candid, but not detailed answers.' This leaves open the possibility that Starr will later seek further testimony from the president." But their analysis concludes: "It is unclear whether Starr's prosecutors have enough evidence to charge the president with perjury, suborning perjury or obstruction of justice, and it is doubtful the House (of Representatives) would move to impeach the president on this basis. Clinton remains popular in the opinion polls, and covering up a sexual affair hardly looks at first glance to be grounds for removing a president from office."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: No one can say for sure whether public support will hold over time

Another analysis in the same paper is headed, "Clinton's Admission May Let Air Out of His Presidency." Ronald Brownstein writes: "Clinton's reversal of his earlier denials may...accelerate the natural process of political entropy that traditionally saps the influence of presidents in the later years of second terms. And his surprisingly combative attack on Starr's investigation promised an escalation of partisan hostilities in the days ahead. On a night when he was expected to sue for peace, Clinton came closer to declaring war." The analysis goes on to say: "Overall, the speech provided a suitably acrid coda to a darkly historic encounter. All the evidence so far suggests that Clinton's admission will not stampede the public against him....Still," Brownstein adds, "no one can say for sure whether that support will hold over time -- particularly as television networks endlessly replay the tape of Clinton in January emphatically denying that he had sexual relations with Lewinsky." He sums up: "With Clinton's admission, the public focus may shift back at least somewhat toward rendering judgment on his apparent willingness to engage in a sustained workplace affair with a woman less than seven years older than his daughter -- in the process endangering a presidency that thousands of supporters had worked to make possible and millions of Americans had entrusted with their votes."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: A cartoon shows a dazed-looking pair, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin

In a news analysis today for the U.S. International Herald Tribune, published in Paris, Joseph Fitchett notes that "a cartoon Monday on the front page of Le Monde shows a dazed-looking pair, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, stripped of everything but their underwear. 'What happened to you?' Mr. Clinton asks. 'An intern?' 'No!,' Mr. Yeltsin replies. 'A devaluation.'"

FINANCIAL TIMES: Russia has suffered a defeat

The ruble's devaluation, in effect if not by name, attracts much commentary in the West European as well as U.S. press today. Britain's Financial Times writes in an editorial: "The Russian government denies that yesterday's announcement amounted to either a devaluation or a default on its debt. So great is the confusion that the precise implications are, as yet, unclear. What is not (unclear) is the need to rescue reform from the ruins." The paper says that "the lesson (for Moscow) has been painful. But the government has to learn from it." Specifically, the editorial recommends: "First, it has to come up with a basis for monetary policy that is less vulnerable to crises than the regime (the government) has been forced to abandon....Second, the Government must persist with fiscal reform and stabilization....Third, it needs to re-establish the credibility of Russian borrowers in foreign markets....Finally, there must be a plan for dealing with vulnerable banks." The editorial concludes: "Russia has suffered a defeat, one that could turn into a disaster, not just for Russia, but for the world....The task ahead is to minimize (the) risks. Given Russia's political fragility, this will need foreign patience and support. It may not be easy to go forward. But it can, and must, be done."

GUARDIAN: All of this is very bad news...

The Guardian titles its editorial "More Troubles". The paper writes: "Devaluation...has now been imposed in all but name. Boris Yeltsin...has approved the lifting of the ruble's exchange limit by 50 percent -- acknowledging that it is a crisis measure. All of this is very bad news for Russia -- especially for ordinary Russians who know in their bones that it means higher prices, bank failures, and a miserable winter (to come)." The Guardian adds: "It is also disturbing news for an international financial system already gloomily contemplating the economic flip-side of globalization." The editorial continues: "The country has a banking system where most banks are vehicles for speculation and personal enrichment. In terms of value, there are probably already more dollars circulating than rubles. And while Russia seeks new international aid, a large proportion of previous injections of funds have been hijacked by the Mafia elite into foreign accounts."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: Devaluation creates no grounds for fresh worries in Germany

In Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung today, a commentary by Martin Reim assesses the devaluation's effect on Germany, Russia's biggest commercial lending source. He says that Moscow's action creates "no grounds for fresh worries, but business in Eastern Europe remains risky." Reim writes further: "The big German banks can sit out the Russian debt moratorium (also announced by Moscow yesterday) in relative tranquillity, even if repayments are delayed the announced 90 days. Even if there was absolutely no repayment of the obligations and Russia was unable to repay its debts -- a scenario for which, it should be stressed, there is no evidence -- the three main German commercial banks (Dresdner Bank, Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, to which Russia is heavily indebted) would emerge with only relatively minor wounds." The commentary goes on to note, too: "On the industrial side of the economy, German producers also have little to fear from economic deterioration in Russia. Although Germany is Russia's largest trading partner, this country exports less to the Russian market than Sweden, for example. German firms do only a small amount of their overall business with Russia, and their investments in the world's largest country are generally negligible, allowing them to be fairly tranquil about events there."

NEW YORK TIMES: The Kremlin had little choice

Two U.S. national dailies, the New York Times and the Washington Post, also carry editorials on Russia's economic problems today. The N.Y. Times writes: "Devaluation and default were steps the Russian government wanted to avoid for fear they would unleash political unrest and anger foreign lenders. But on Monday the Kremlin took those steps because the alternative -- the collapse of the banks and eventually the economy -- seemed worse. Given the developing banking crisis and the loss of confidence in international markets, the Kremlin had little choice. It had become clear that not even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) bail-out announced last month would be enough to keep the Russian government afloat." The paper goes on to say: "The decision was forced when Russian banks, which have borrowed large amounts of dollars, began to be pressed for repayment by lenders last week. The banks tried to buy dollars from the Government, threatening to deplete its small reserves of foreign currency. Last week the government blocked those dollar purchases. Now it has blocked the debt repayments." The editorial ends: "Finding a way for the Russian economy to recover will not be easy. But it is in no one's interest to see the government disintegrate."

WASHINGTON POST: The latest development is an acknowledgment of failure

The Washington Post says in its editorial: "Russia's dramatic actions yesterday, allowing the value of the ruble to fall and declaring a moratorium on some Government debt, reversed a pledge President Boris Yeltsin and his government had issued as recently as Friday. It threatens one of the few clear-cut accomplishments of his mixed record, which was to get inflation under control. It raises questions also about the West's strategy for aiding Russia, including the $22.6-billion IMF rescue effort that Washington pushed through only four weeks ago." The paper adds: "The latest development is not so much a failure of policy as an acknowledgment of failure that had become already clear. Russia's government was spending more than it could afford to defend the value of the ruble against those -- Russians and foreigners alike -- who had lost faith in the stewardship of Russia's economy. The floundering economy pushed Mr. Yeltsin into a corner, and this was his response."

The WP's editorial concludes: "Russia's shrinking economy has provided neither enough jobs to support the population nor enough tax revenue to support the government, pay the army, etc. The country has had to borrow more and more to make up the difference....The question is whether this partial devaluation and default can help any more. On the one hand, the new policy buys sometime for the government, which will find it easier to repay ruble-denominated credits. It helps oil tycoons, who can sell their product for dollars that are now worth more at home. It may not hurt ordinary Russians as much as was predicted, since many remain relatively unconnected to the global market and others hold their savings in dollars already."