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Clinton sees a good 1998 President voices confidence on wide range of topics; No comment on FBI chief; Backs 'conversation' on race, calls for more funds for IMF

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Proclaiming 1997 "a banner year for America," a confident and expansive President Clinton held court yesterday in a 92-minute news conference covering everything from his agenda for the next three years to the name of his new dog.

In his first formal news conference since Aug. 5, Clinton appeared to relish presiding, during the holiday season, over a nation enjoying peace abroad and prosperity at home.

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The president rebuffed suggestions that another round of tax cuts is in order, saying the nation must continue the "discipline" that has produced a humming economy and lower deficits.

He added that in good times America ought to address long-term issues such as global warming and the projected shortfalls of Social Security early in the next century.

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More immediately, Clinton urged Congress to grant new borrowing authority to the International Monetary Fund to cope with currency crises such as those now afflicting Asia, defended his initiative on race and pointedly refused to express support for FBI Director Louis J. Freeh.

Freeh recently recommended to Attorney General Janet Reno that she seek a special prosecutor to probe 1996 Democratic fund-raising efforts -- including those by Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

Clinton denied that Freeh's stance influenced his opinion one way or the other. But asked whether he'd "lost confidence" in Freeh, Clinton declined to say anything about him at all.

"I think there's been too much back and forth on that," Clinton said. "I don't want to get into it."

Faced with continued signs of financial turmoil in Asia that could buffet the U.S. economy, Clinton was more forthcoming. He said the United States "may need to do more."

The administration is supporting international aid packages totaling nearly $100 billion to help bolster the troubled currencies of South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand.

The president insisted, however, that any additional money must be provided "within the framework that has been established," which means going through the IMF. The IMF is insisting that Asian countries open up their financial markets and curb the often cozy relationships among their bankers, manufacturers and politicians.

(As for the dog, a 3-month-old chocolate Labrador, his name is Buddy, after a favorite great-uncle who died earlier this year.)

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But the issue that evoked the most emotion from Clinton at the longest news conference of his presidency, held at the Dean Acheson Auditorium at the State Department, was race relations. Although he was in good spirits yesterday, he rose to the bait when one network correspondent prefaced a question about Clinton's race initiative by referring to it as "presidential Oprah."

"That may be your editorial comment, but that's not my reports," Clinton said, bristling.

The president displayed pride in the "national conversation" he is moderating on race, and said those who complain that it is not accompanied by concrete policy proposals don't understand what it's about in the first place.

"I believe talking is better than fighting," he said. "Keep in mind, this is the first time ever that our country has tried to deal with its racial divergence in the absence of a crisis. We don't have a Civil War; we don't have the aftermath of Civil War; we don't have big fights over Jim Crow; we don't have riots in the streets. We have a country that is emerging as an ever-more-divergent, diverse democracy."

It also seemed clear that although Clinton believes deeply in affirmative action, he is still searching for just the right words to explain his views to the rest of the country.

"What I would like to see done is to move beyond the 'I'm for it and you're against it' stage to a more sophisticated and ultimately more meaningful debate," Clinton said.

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The race initiative is cited by some critics in asserting that Clinton is a lame duck who can't get much through Congress and has become content to spend his second term talking about problems without solving them.

Clinton dismissed that characterization by pointing to low crime rates, high employment rates and an upcoming State of the Union speech that he hinted will be full of new initiatives.

"I think it was a banner year for America," he said. "And all I can tell you is, in '98, it will be a more vigorous year."

The president also dealt with the lame-duck issue in a more subtle way -- by making it clear in his answers that whatever is going on in domestic politics, he is still the commander in chief. An hour into his performance, in fact, he waved off White House press secretary Mike McCurry's efforts to end it -- and made a point of inviting foreign journalists to ask questions.

Responding to foreign policy questions, Clinton:

Declined to rule out the use of force to make Iraq open up sensitive sites to United Nations weapons inspectors.

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Asked point-blank whether Saddam Hussein might be "crazy," Clinton indulged in a rare public psycho-analysis of America's longtime nemesis, saying that the Iraqi leader might be "clever crazy," adding that at times he does things that are "maddeningly stupid."

Offered a fresh overture to Iran, keeping alive the possibility that the long-frozen U.S.-Iranian relationship will improve. "Do I hope that there'll be some conditions under which this dialogue can resume?" Clinton said. "I certainly do."

U.S. officials and Iran's relatively moderate president, Mohammed Khatami, have exchanged a series of conciliatory statements in recent days. But Clinton has refused to ease up on U.S. sanctions against Iran, and says that any talks must encompass American complaints about Tehran's support for terrorism, its efforts to undermine the Middle East peace process, and its bid to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Signaled anew that he plans to keep some U.S. forces in Bosnia beyond their scheduled departure next June, but declined to give details. Clinton said more must be done to bolster a civilian police force in Bosnia, but said he opposed any permanent stationing of Western troops. He said he hopes to announce a decision before his Christmas visit to U.S. troops there.

Vented his frustration with Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in a more public way than he has before. Asked why he failed to meet Netanyahu while both were in Los Angeles, Clinton discarded the previous White House explanation about a scheduling conflict. Instead, he noted that he'd already met with Netanyahu five times, adding that he hoped enough will be accomplished by the time of their next meeting to make it "productive" and "meaty."

U.S. officials want Israel to agree to a significant withdrawal from the West Bank and thus set the stage for negotiations with the Palestinians on the most serious issues facing them, including Jerusalem and settlements.

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Pub Date: 12/17/97


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