Prague, 15 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Like their U.S. counterparts, Europe's media and press have been dominated in recent days by coverage of a major American event: the publication of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's report on President Bill Clinton's extra-marital relations with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The report alleges that Clinton committed perjury in lying about his sexual relations with Lewinsky to two grand juries, and its 445 pages depict those relations in unusually graphic detail.
The entire report was released and put on the Internet by the House of Representatives soon after Starr delivered it to the Capital last Thursday (Sept. 10). Since then it has been read, in part or whole, by millions of Web-users around the world, while millions of others have read excerpts --often long and detailed excerpts-- in their nations' newspapers. In Europe as in the U.S., the Starr report has been the top news story for five days now, with analysts and commentators exploring the likely repercussions of its allegations on Clinton, his presidency and the U.S. role in the World.
On both sides of the Atlantic, most agree that Clinton's admitted lies about his affair with Lewinsky and the Starr report's detailed account of their sexual relations have politically weakened the President both at home and abroad, with a concurrent loss of face for the U.S. But where some important European, particularly West European, comments on the Starr report diverges from the U.S. is in the conclusions they draw both about the nature of Clinton's wrong-doing and about U.S. morality.
Editorials and commentary in the Italian and French press put most of the blame not on Clinton but on the alleged "Puritanism" of the United States. Italy's "La Repubblica" called the American people "infantile" in an editorial over the weekend, saying that made the U.S. "no longer a credible point of reference." Another Italian daily, "La Stampa, wrote that "America has enclosed itself in a prison of false morality, inhabited by the ghosts of its puritan past and guarded by judges (like Starr) obsessed with sex and the private lives of political men."
In the French press, the tone was even sharper, the charges even more extreme. On Sunday, the "Journal de Dimanche" called Starr "a type of fundamentalist more efficient in his work of ethnic purification than the (Afghan) Taliban is in imposing moral order." The weekly "Marianne" called his report "the first porno assassination in history." And in its weekend edition the country's most influential newspaper, "Le Monde," topped them both with a front-page editorial cartoon showing Clinton tied to a stake, with a burning American flag consuming him.
Inside, together with a 16-page supplement of excerpts from the Starr report, "Le Monde" ran a blistering editorial entitled "Hell is American." The paper evoked what it called "this new McCarthism (a reference to U.S. anti-communist investigations of the 1950s, led by Senator Joe McCarthy), which is replacing the panicky fear of communism with a fright of sex ." As for Starr, "Le Monde" said he is seeking to impose on the world what it called "a moral order where sex does not cease to be related to sin." Starr's report, according to the paper, was worthy of the worst documents of the Spanish Inquisition.
All this was too much for the "Wall Street Journal Europe," which fired a broadside of its own yesterday at Italian and French critics of U.S. morality. Their comments, the U.S. paper said in an editorial, "belie a fundamental misunderstanding about what is at issue here --in short, not sex, but law." The paper went on: "The notion that Americans are gripped with a Puritanism that compels them to constantly equate sex with sin is laughable. On the contrary, polls (show) that while a majority of Americans believed...Clinton had some sort of affair with the intern, roughly the same majority approved of his job in office. What changed that view," the paper said, "was (Clinton's) admission of lying and the (purported) evidence of perjury and obstruction of justice."
In today's edition of the U.S. "International Herald Tribune," a commentary by Josef Joffe of Germany's 'Sueddeutsche Zeitung" makes a similar point, but a bit more gently. Joffe says that Europeans "relish the (Clinton) saga because it allows them...to burnish their ancient sense of cultural superiority toward their upstart relatives across the sea (whom they now see as) blue-nosed puritans." He notes that "Puritanism has been out in America" since the 1960s, and recalls that European politicians, too, have been known to fall because of sexual peccadilloes or lying --among others, Germany's Willy Brandt and Franz Josef Strauss.
In Central and Eastern European papers, however, there is little talk of U.S. "Puritanism." Coverage of the Starr report and its repercussions in Poland, for example, has largely been limited to straight news and background information, with an underscoring of the fact that recent U.S. polls show the American public does not want Clinton to resign. The treatment of the Starr report in the Bulgarian press has been similar, although the weekend papers carried long excerpts with extensive sexual details. Some Bulgarian papers have carried headlines more of less saying "Clinton is Finished," but no paper has carried an editorial comment on the matter.
Czech newspapers for the most part have also limited themselves to straight news coverage and background information. But today's "Lidove Noviny" calls on readers to provide their opinions on Clinton, asking those who believe he should resign to choose among three reasons: 1) because he had an extra-marital affair with a woman more than half his age; 2) because he broke U.S. laws by lying; or 3) because his presidency has been so weakened that it threatens U.S. stability.
But in Romania several papers have published editorials comparing the Lewinsky affair to Romanian political and financial scandals that have never been fully disclosed. Today's "Adevarul" daily carries an editorial signed by Cristian Tudor Popesc, which praises "the way the Lewinsky scandal developed as a splendid example of the U.S.' inner force." Popesc calls the decision to put the Starr report on the Internet "the highest expression of democratic consciousness at the end of this century."
Another Romanian daily, "National," says that the country now has a chance of witnessing "a great lesson in democracy given by the U.S." The paper contrasts the behavior of Romanian politicians who, its says, tend to ignore the law, and the U.S. President who, it notes, may be on the verge of impeachment because he violated the law.
(NCA's Jan de Weydenthal and Dora Slaba contributed to this report, as did the Bulgarian Service's Roman Traycey and Ileana Breitenstein of the Romanian Service.)