Clinton emerges from press purdah

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THIS AFTERNOON, President Bill Clinton will do something he has not done for almost a year: walk solo into the East Room of the White House and submit himself to unscripted questions from reporters.

The presidential press conference, a genre that the White House press corps regards as tantamount to a constitutional right for the Fourth Estate, has been suspended since the Monica Lewinsky scandal became a threat to Mr Clinton's presidency. Today's press conference, which is scheduled to last an hour but on past performance could go on much longer, is a clear effort by the President and the White House to draw a line under the Lewinsky affair and the impeachment drama that followed.

The last such press conference took place last April, three months after the first White House panic about the Lewinsky scandal. Then, reporters' insistent questions about the veracity of the President's denials demonstrated the affair would not go away and discouraged the White House from risking another media free-for-all.

Since then, relations between the White House and the US media, especially the Washington media, have been fraught to non-existent.

Mr Clinton was not completely isolated, but every occasion was stage- managed to minimise spontaneity. The President appeared in tandem with other state leaders, or at scripted events in the White House or the Rose Garden where he could choose to take questions or not - and frequently chose not to.

His spokesmen - Mike McCurry until last autumn and, since then, Joe Lockhart - have come in for ferocious criticism for being distant, uncommunicative and, at times, plain inaccurate. Mr McCurry, who often looked awkward at the podium and professed to knowing nothing about the Lewinsky affair, has admitted since leaving the White House that he was unhappy with the lack of information coming from the Oval Office, but tried never knowingly to lie.

Mutual resentment built up. Officials at the White House, where Mr Clinton - it transpired - had repeatedly lied to senior aides, objected to what they saw as intrusive and hostile questions from overbearing reporters with ambitions to fell a president. Reporters accused the White House of stonewalling and - after Mr Clinton's confession in August - of lying. The White House press corps is used not only to a degree of accessibility that reporters in Britain can only envy, but also to a cosy system of give and take that borders on patronage.

Since Mr Clinton's acquittal by the Senate two months ago, the White House has been loosening his leash. When he travelled to Mexico on Valentine's Day, he and Hillary Clinton handed out chocolates to the press. During his recent visit to Central America, the President attended two informal dinners with select members of the media. Last weekend, he answered questions shouted by reporters on a visit to Arkansas.

Today's event is the culmination of these "normalisation" efforts. It will show not only whether the President is ready to face the media, but whether Washington reporters are ready to consign the Lewinsky affair and Mr Clinton's duplicity to history.