WASHINGTON -- Had the country not just gone through 1 years of presidents who either treated facts like strangers or often went goofy in trying to articulate them, President Clinton's performance in his first formal White House news conference might not have been so impressive.
But his firm grasp of every single issue posed to him, and his unhesitant, coherent reply in each instance stood in particularly sharp contrast with Ronald Reagan's recurrent misstatements and puzzled looks over eight years, and George Bush's verbal entanglements and frequently silly bon mots over four.
From his appropriately cautious observations about the proper administration posture toward Boris Yeltsin and the preservation democratic objectives in Russia to his gentle prodding of the Senate to pass his full economic recovery package, Clinton moved with equal ease and confidence from foreign policy questions that are supposed to be his weak suit to domestic issues that are supposed to be his strong, and back again.
Facing a battery of experienced questioners, the new president diplomatically declined to engage in speculations about Russia's future, the cost of his health-care package still in the making, his opportunity to name his campaign favorite, Gov. Mario Cuomo, to the Supreme Court, whether he would apply a litmus test on abortion, the future of embattled FBI Director William Sessions and an assortment of other matters.
In the process, Clinton didn't make much news of the sort that used to send veteran wire-service reporters like the fabled Merriman Smith of UPI racing out of the room, elbows high, to get to a telephone. The main news, if it could be called that, was that here was a chief executive who knew what he was talking about, no matter what the question, and knew how to make himself clearly understood.
There were, to be sure, no tough zingers thrown at him, possibly excepting a question about whether he could perform as commander-in-chief of the armed forces after his recent visit to an aircraft carrier in which some waiting sailors mocked him to reporters because of his lack of military service. Clinton, with just a momentary trace of unease, replied he could.
It was, in all, a sure-footed performance capped by the president's decision to jump voluntarily into the black hole of White House news conferences -- inviting one last question from legendary president-scorcher Sarah McClendon of Texas. She barked a demand that he explain, if he could, how a bunch of ridiculously wasteful items got into his economic stimulus package.
After she had ticked off a few, Clinton laughed and pulled out a letter from his budget chief, Leon Panetta, certifying that none of the items were in his bill, but rather were inventions cooked up by critical Republicans in Congress. Sarah seemed, for her at least, properly subdued.
Clinton's performance was no great surprise to anyone who had heard him talking his way to the Democratic nomination last year through a minefield of hostile press inquiries about his personal life. The only surprise was what took him so long -- two months into his presidency -- to hold a formal news conference. Leaving the microphone, he quipped: "We'll have to do this again sometime -- I like this," ignoring calls from reporters for him to make it a weekly affair.
The reason for the delay may have been the many hits he took in the 1992 campaign, and the lesson he and his political strategists learned then -- that there are plenty of less risky ways to get your message out to voters than running the press-conference gantlet. Particularly after his experience with the New York tabloid press, Clinton employed them -- television talk shows, "town meetings" and the like -- to great political advantage, and control.
His mastery of his first formal news conference may encourage him to hold more.
But the betting is that he won't make them regularly scheduled affairs, if only because there will be times when he won't be so willing to field questions -- especially when he knows there are other ways to make his views known the way he wants them known.