WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, under the toughest and most sustained questioning about his character since the Monica Lewinsky furor broke, steadfastly refused yesterday to answer any questions about his relationship with the former intern.
So insistent was Clinton on avoiding the matter that he ducked questions at a news conference about whether a president should be a role model, whether he has squandered his "moral authority" to govern -- and even whether a president's oath of office requires him to obey the law.
"I really believe it's important for me not to say any more about this," Clinton said in an hourlong session in the East Room, his first formal news conference of the year. "I think that I'm -- in some ways -- the last person who needs to be having a national conversation about this."
Pressed by Sam Donaldson of ABC News, who said, "But you're the leader," Clinton replied, "I may be the leader, but my job as leader is to lead the country and to deal with the great public issues facing the country and to prove Justice Scalia right when he said that nothing that could be done to me in a legal way would in any way affect my job as president."
The comment about Antonin Scalia, uttered with some sarcasm, was an allusion to the Supreme Court's unanimous decision to allow Paula Corbin Jones' sexual misconduct lawsuit to proceed while Clinton is still in office -- a ruling that indirectly led to the Lewinsky scandal.
Four months ago, Clinton was basking in the glow of re-election, a robust economy and the highest approval ratings of his presidency. But on Jan. 20, the Lewinsky story erupted. Her assertions, captured on tape by Linda R. Tripp, a former colleague, were that Lewinsky had had a sexual relationship with the president and that Clinton or his allies had encouraged her to lie about it under oath in the Jones case.
Clinton denied having had sexual relations with Lewinsky or ever having urged anyone to lie. But after the Whitewater independent counsel, Kenneth W. Starr, expanded his investigation into possible obstruction of justice and perjury by the president and others in connection with Lewinsky, the president refused to comment further.
In the meantime, the questions have mounted: Why did the president buy gifts for a woman in her early 20s? Why was she ZTC admitted to the Oval Office three dozen times after leaving the White House? Why did high-powered Clinton loyalists go to great lengths to find Lewinsky a job?
Yesterday was the first time since January that Clinton has stood up alone, without aides, fellow Democrats or world leaders, to face such questions. His replies, while unresponsive on specific facts, provided a window into his frustration, anger and concern about Starr's investigation:
Though he did not use his wife's phrase -- "a vast right-wing conspiracy" -- Clinton suggested that his own thinking is in tune with the first lady's. He was asked about opinion polls that show that most Americans no longer respect him as a person or believe that Clinton shares their moral values.
"I don't think it's hard to account for," he said. "It's been part of a strategy that's goes all the way back to 1991. It's obvious, I think, to the American people that this has been a hard, well-financed, vigorous effort over a long period of time by people who could not contest the ideas that I brought to the table."
Clinton expressed his strongest misgivings yet about the wisdom of the independent counsel law itself, a system he re-authorized into law in 1993. He said he felt "terrible" about people, such as Betty Currie, a White House secretary, who have incurred enormous legal bills. He added: "The independent counsel has an unlimited budget and can go on forever -- 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years, spend $40 million today, $100 million tomorrow."
He further implied that he believes this prosecutor in particular is overzealous. Asked if he felt responsible for the burden borne by those caught in Starr's net, Clinton replied, "No, if there's one person in the world I'm not responsible for, it's Mr. Starr and his behavior."
Clinton seemed determined to keep his cool, never flashing his temper. He insisted matter-of-factly that it would "not be appropriate" to ask Attorney General Janet Reno to dismiss Starr; said he had not yet discussed the issue of pardons for those convicted in the Whitewater case; and said unhesitatingly when asked whether he was prepared for the possibility that lingering questions will hang over him for the rest of his administration: "Absolutely."
Asked whether he plans to testify to Starr's grand jury, Clinton gave the same answer -- the answer of the day: "I don't have anything to say about that," he said. "All my interactions with him, Mr. Kendall speaks for me, and I just have nothing to say."
Pub Date: 5/01/98