Presidential crisis: The ghost of Monica at the feast

The United Nations

David Usborne@dusborne
Monday 21 September 1998 23:02

PRESIDENT BILL Clinton, they say, is able to live in a split- screen universe, one in which he suffers in private the pain of his personal trauma that is Monicagate while managing still to focus on his role of leader of a nation and indeed of the free world. Yesterday in New York, the screens were split in the most literal sense.

For a few hours, those different existences of the United States President became bizarrely and inextricably entwined. It was hard to know which of the two Clintons to pay attention to. The President as first among equals at the podium of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Or the President discussing definitions of sex on his video-taped testimony about Monica Lewinsky.

We know which Clinton the White House wanted us to see. Indeed yesterday provided the perfect setting to project the image of a head of state conducting the state's business, despite everything. At the UN, there was back-slapping with President Nelson Mandela and photo-calls with Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general. There is no stage better than this one for making an American president look presidential.

He delivered, moreover, a powerful speech that contained a call to arms against the gathering forces of international terrorism. With repeated references to August's bomb blast in Omagh, and to the twin attacks against the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Mr Clinton urged world leaders to join the US in taking new steps to curb global terrorism. He asked them to sign UN treaties against terrorism and on weapons of mass destruction and to tighten security at airports.

"It is a grave misconception to see terrorism as only or indeed mostly an American problem," the President declared. "No one in this room or the people you represent is immune. Terror has become the world's problem."

The choreography lasted into the afternoon with an appearance at the New York University School of Law alongside his most loyal of international friends, Prime Minister Tony Blair.

With Hillary Clinton all smiles and false serenity at his side, Bill drank in the support of Tony as they discussed the "Third Way", their pet project for giving intellectual definition to their shared model of new-left government.

But yesterday, of all days, was one when the other Clinton simply could not be ignored. The Clinton whose presidency has been drawn down to the gutter by the Monicagate revelations and which seemed to be nearing the moment of dismal disintegration.

The confluence of his two worlds was almost exquisite, the timing of it cruel. It was just as the President was climbing from his limousine at the UN's front entrance that the American networks were starting their four-hour marathon broadcasts of his video-taped testimony to Kenneth Starr and his fellow prosecutors. Ms Lewinsky did not just hover over the day, she all but hijacked it.

These were hours of surreal schizophrenia. The UN provides visiting correspondents with two televisions. When President Clinton took to the podium in the General Assembly, reporters were evenly divided in two groups. One group watched the President on terrorism, the other gawped at his hesitant responses about his shenanigans with Monica.

Beyond the stream of words from the podium just one topic dominated corridor conversations. Sometimes just a quick smirk exchanged between diplomats was enough to share the rumness of it all. It was as if the normally stale air of UN headquarters had been suffused with giggling gas. "Lewinsky", "Lewinsky", "Lewinsky". Her name could be heard in almost every discussion and it did not matter what language it was in.

And another sad truth lingered. Even without Monicagate, the relationship between the US and the UN is in ruins. Washington does not even have a senior ambassador here, because the President's choice for the post, Richard Holbrooke, is being investigated for ethical misconduct and therefore cannot be confirmed by the Senate. And America's arrears to the UN now stand at $1.5bn.

With all of this and Monica as well, it is no wonder that one of the two Clintons was so much more compelling in New York yesterday. And it was not the Clinton the White House hoped we would see.

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