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'I mean, look, I wear a $40 watch'


WASHINGTON -- With his staff and friends having failed to quiet the furor over a week of White House gaffes, President Clinton took on a favored role yesterday to try to reassure Americans he is not a star-struck, image-obsessed politician who has lost touch with public sensibilities.

"It's not the kind of person I am," Mr. Clinton asserted in a two-hour CBS "town meeting," referring to the haircut he got April 19 from Beverly Hills, Calif., stylist Cristophe. "Has the administration gone Hollywood? The answer to that is no, heck no, never, no, never -- never."

In his fullest comments to date on the week-old uproar, Mr. Clinton conceded that the haircut was a "boner" and a "mess-up." He apologized for holding up Los Angeles International Airport traffic for nearly an hour while his hair was being cut, and he decribed the firing of the White House travel office staff as one of several things "that we didn't handle as well as we could."

But in a sometimes prickly session, he also pinned much of the blame on the news media and asserted that the White House's biggest problem was that "I have to find a better way of communicating."

Fielding questions from an audience of about 200, Mr. Clinton also said:

* The health care reform plan, while following a nearly complete ban on federal funding of abortions, also should not deprive women of the abortion coverage they currently receive under their health insurance.

* A national value-added-tax "is something we may look at later on," provided unfair impact on lower-income taxpayers could be avoided.

* He prefers phasing in a health care program "worth having" rather than accept a version with lesser coverage. Administration health planners have said that if a broad health care plan is deemed too expensive, coverage could be phased in over several years while mechanisms to contain health care costs take hold.

Mr. Clinton's explanations came after a week in which his aides have given various and sometimes tangled explanations of the so-called "Hair Force One" and "Travelgate" affairs.

In the past two days, Mr. Clinton's best friends, the TV producers Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, have said that they were too rich to be interested in the travel office business. Some critics have suggested that Mr. Thomason told Mr. Clinton of complaints he overheard about the office because his business, or those owned by friends, could benefit if the office were revamped.

But even some aides have lamented that the explanations have fallen short. New polls have suggested that Mr. Clinton's approval ratings have fallen to about 45 percent -- marking a faster decline than that of any other modern president.

And rumors have begun to swirl of a White House reorganization.

Amid charges that some recent actions belied a populist image, Mr. Clinton sought to portray himself as a person of ordinary style and background.

"I mean, look, I wear a $40 watch," he said at one point. "Do I look like the kind of guy who would sit on an airport [runway]?" He noted that while the visits of Hollywood stars had been carefully chronicled, "when my preacher from Arkansas stayed here, nobody wrote it up."

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