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Clinton Drops In on a Washington Power Breakfast

The candidate discusses Yeltsin, his use of TV to reach voters, and the media's handling of the character issue

By Godfrey Sperling / July 7, 1992



PEOPLE often ask how Monitor breakfasts are put together. Sometimes they are planned days in advance.

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Sometimes they take shape only the day before. Then once in a while they are improvised and produced "on the spot" - as one was the other morning when Bill Clinton dropped by.

We journalists were having our breakfast with four shapers of the Democratic platform at the Sheraton Carlton Hotel. As we were finishing our hour-long session, we learned that Governor Clinton was meeting with his staff in an adjoining room. So at our request, one of our guests, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, walked next door to invite Clinton to join us. And he did.

Clinton had told Senator Lieberman that he only had time to come by to say "hello." It turned out to be a "Big Hello." He first walked around to shake hands with a group numbering more than 30. Then he sat down and talked and talked.

He said he had returned only minutes before from meeting with Boris Yeltsin at Blair House. "How did it go?" a newsman asked. "Very well," said Clinton. "He was extremely gracious, and we had a nice visit. I told him that I thought he deserved a lot of credit for the arms control agreement - something that he undertook at some risk back home."

What did Clinton "think of Yeltsin?" someone else asked. "I found him just the way the Congress found him," Clinton replied. "He's a very impressive fellow. He's been on this road for years. He's been very consistent. And he represents a dramatic departure from anything we've ever seen in Russia. He is a genuine democrat."

(Here a query from some reporter: "Small D or Big D?") "Small D," said Clinton. "I really think he sees himself as fighting a war against bureaucracy and for an open-market system. And I think we ought to be in there helping him."

This was Clinton's first disclosure to the press and public of what was said at his meeting with Mr. Yeltsin. Later in the day there were TV sound bites that briefly told of the amicable get-together. But nowhere else did I see the detailed accounting of what transpired that we were getting that morning.

Clinton also indicated to us that he has a strong interest in foreign affairs - that he might even take some trips abroad before the election and meet with some other global leaders.

"I haven't made any decision yet on this," he said. "There is so much to be done here."

The governor might have stayed longer on the subject of Yeltsin. He was making it clear that as president he would work with the Russian leader, when he was stopped by a question that obviously touched one of his tender spots: "Governor, do you think you have debased the presidency and your campaign by appearing on some of these TV shows, like Donahue and Arsenio Hall?"

"Well," he said, turning a little red, "I have to tell you that I've had two very good weeks, and I don't think I debase myself or the presidency by how we have been getting our message out....

"I think it has elevated the campaign. When we answer questions from the real voters, they don't ask me political and process and poll questions. They ask me how their lives are going to be changed.... When you ask me these questions about polls, politics, and process, the people get mad at you because you're getting in their way. They say of you in the press, `You're one of them. That has nothing to do with me, my wife, and anything in my life.' "

Clinton obviously sees the media as a problem. And it appears that he's finding the Perot approach of going over their heads via TV his best approach to reaching the voters and avoiding the kind of questions we pesky journalists too often (from his point of view) ask - such as those dealing with his character. At one point he spoke glowingly of an "unbelievable response" to a call-in TV show he had paid for.

Last fall Clinton had come to our breakfast accompanied by his wife Hillary and prepared to put rumors about his dalliances behind them.

Both spoke of having had "marital problems" but said that their relationship now was very solid. And now, after this current breakfast, Clinton spoke privately to me on his way out, saying that the press should have been satisfied by that explanation of eight months ago - but it wasn't.

Clinton is sour on the press. Maybe he has a right to feel that way.