President Clinton has demonstrated a mastery of the presidential news conference over the years, and there were flashes of that deft and above-the-fray Clinton on display in the East Room Thursday. But there was another Clinton there as well, one who has seen his presidency consumed by controversy and is now determined to settle scores.
Clinton offered no new information about his relationship with former intern Monica Lewinsky and said he would not respond in kind to the sharp attacks by Republicans this week. He said he was "absolutely" comfortable in his silence, despite having said long ago he wanted to give Americans a full explanation of events.
That has been part of his strategy from the beginning. But what was clear Thursday was a growing irritation with independent counsel Kenneth Starr and a greater willingness to fire back at his accusers and cast himself as a victim.
Clinton's aides debated for several weeks whether the president should hold a news conference _ his first solo venture of the year. Ironically, he ended up facing the press on the day after it was reported that a federal judge had rejected Lewinsky's claim of immunity in exchange for testimony about her relationship with the president and just hours before Starr's grand jury handed up a new indictment of Clinton's friend and former Justice Department official Webster Hubbell.
Half the questions fired at Clinton during his hourlong news conference dealt in some way with the ongoing controversies and investigations. They were a reminder of the near-permanent cloud that hangs over his presidency and the toll the long-running battle has taken on him.
Clinton sought the high road, as he often has done in similar circumstances. He had a smile on his face as he entered the East Room and repeated his determination not to let scandal distract him from the business of the country. More than three months ago he said he never had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky and he ventured no further into the details of that relationship Thursday.
He attempted to appear cheerful in the face of attacks by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who has spent the week criticizing the president for his failure to cooperate fully with Starr and with congressional investigators. "There is nothing he (Gingrich) can say about me, for whatever reason, that will affect my willingness to sit down with him and others and work for the benefit of this country," Clinton said.
He tried to turn a question about the impact of criticism on his moral authority as president back on his accusers. Those critics, he said, may try to damage his reputation but can do nothing to affect his character. "If I were to answer them in kind, it would be more of a reflection on my character than on their reputation," he said.
But toward the end of the news conference, the pent-up frustration came rushing forth when he delivered perhaps the clearest statement of his presidency that he believes he has been the victim of an ongoing political campaign to deny his right to govern. Asked why polls show his job approval rating still high but his personal reputation badly tainted, he responded bitterly:
"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, couldn't even contest the values behind the ideas that I brought to the table, and certainly can't quarrel with the consequences and the results of my service and, therefore, personal attack seems legitimate."
He offered a much different kind of response in February during a joint news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Asked then whether he agreed with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's assertion that they were victims of a "vast right-wing conspiracy," Clinton, said, "Now you know, I've known her for a long time, the first lady. And she's very smart. And she's hardly ever wrong about anything. But I don't believe I should amplify on her observation in this case."
The audience of journalists and White House staff responded with laughter.
In other ways, too, Thursday's performance reflected a different Clinton than the one who shared the stage with his friend Blair. Buttressed by a ringing defense from Blair, Clinton glided past a series of hostile questions. Starting slowly, he warmed to the combat with reporters with humor, sarcasm and a mastery of the details of policy and issues.
Thursday, as he was hit with questions about his personal reputation and his moral authority and his claim of executive privilege and the motivation of his accusers, his irritation and contempt grew more apparent as time passed.
"If there's one person in the world I'm not responsible for, it's Mr. Starr," he said, when asked whether he feels personal responsibility for the fact that many friends and aides have mounting legal bills because of the investigations. He added, "I don't think there's any American who believes I'm responsible for that."
At another point he declined to comment on whether presidential assistant Sidney Blumenthal was out of bounds in recently labeling one of Starr's deputies, Hickman Ewing, a religious fanatic. "I don't have any comment about that," he began, but by the time he finished he left the clear impression that he had no disagreement with Blumenthal's characterization of Ewing.
Was all of this the result of the cumulative toll the Starr investigation has taken? Was it presidential pique at seeing his wife forced to go through another long deposition in the past week? Was it something else? Aides offered no full explanation.
Whatever the reason, Thursday's news conference underscored how much Clinton's presidency is now shaped by controversy. The normally loquacious president still has the ability to dissect the issues on the public agenda, but in other ways controversy has cost him his voice.