Clinton proves no match for Home Improvement

FROM RUPERT CORNWELL

in Washington

When the sixth reporter to be called asks the President of the United States a "philosophical question", complete with references to "moral relativism", you know this is not going to be a White House press conference which has the world on the edge of its seat. Rarely though has the diminished clout of presidents in general - and the 42nd in particular - been as evident as on Tuesday evening.

This was just the fourth prime-time press conference Mr Clinton has held. But it was Washington's equivalent of a Broadway flop. Of the three big television networks, only CBS chose to air the 40-minute event live. ABC stayed with its smash-hit sitcom Home Improvement. It was a similar story on NBC. Even Washington's public broadcasting television station did not switch to the President. And if news judgement is the criterion, who is to say they were wrong ?

Mr Clinton asked Congress to send him a welfare bill by 4 July. He said that he would "go to the mat" for Dr Henry Foster, his beleaguered nominee for Surgeon-General.

Again he urged Moscow not to sell nuclear equipment to Iran. He castigated Japan for its "direct and indirect protectionism", and reiterated his belief that President Harry Truman had been right to use the atom bomb, almost 50 years ago.

But he had no dramatic announcement, nothing that would re-assert his office and nudge the pendulum of power from Capitol Hill towards his end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Towards his Republican opponents, he sounded responsible, conciliatory. It was all pretty dull.

Once upon a time, of course, even the dullest presidential press conference would have been mandatory programming for all. But Mr Clinton is victim of today's plethora of available news. With presidential soundbites spewing round the clock from CNN and the rest, what is so special about a setpiece event in the White House ?

Nor are Japanese trade negotiators, even ayatollahs, villains to concentrate the mind as the Communist superpower of yesteryear, with its thermonuclear weapons trained on US cities.

Not for the first time since the Cold War's end, you realised on Tuesday that in the dominating domestic context of American politics - and irrespective even of who controls Congress, a US president has far less real executive clout than a German chancellor or British prime minister.

That said, nothing should detract from the quality of Mr Clinton's performance. From the nuances of welfare policy to the complexities of the Middle East peace process to the current plight of the dollar - where one mis-chosen adjective could send tens of billions more dollars pouring into Japan - he did not put a foot wrong.

The answers were crisper too, the sentences shorter. This was Bill Clinton at his best: articulate, humorous, master of every brief. If only, one wondered, he had projected the same authority two years ago, where might his Presidency be?

Today, when he has finally learnt his job, it may be too late. "The President is relevant," he felt constrained to point out. There could be no greater admission of irrelevancy.

Oh yes, that question about moral relativism. Mr Clinton's answer was intriguing - "America worries so much about moral relativism because we are the least relativistic of all the big countries. We are the most likely to believe not only in God but in the absolute rules of right and wrong on earth."

Fascinating stuff, but against Home Improvement it didn't have a prayer.

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