Clinton at the UN: Upstaged By Ted Turner

The opening day of the United Nations General Assembly traditionally features the keynote address of the American president. Not in the entire 53-year history of the world organization can I recall another occasion like this year's, when a private American citizen stood taller than the president of the United States.

Media tycoon Ted Turner once told me that how much money you can amass is how you keep score of achievement. More recently, he revised that to: How much money you give is how you keep score.

If it was his purpose to embarrass the president with his offer of $1 billion for humanitarian programs, topping the president's offer of $900 million in partial payment of past debts, then Mr. Turner surely succeeded.

The president inserted into his lackluster speech a reference to the "truly visionary American" and his "remarkable donation." Then he hurried on to talk of our Congress, which wants to pay only part of America's past debt, and a reduced assessment in the future. That proposal has run into stiff resistance, even among America's European allies.

Mr. Clinton putting the blame on Congress (read Sen. Jesse Helms) for stinginess, was accurate enough. But it is not usual for the global delegates to hear from the powerful head of the great superpower that his hands are tied by his legislature.

Under the circumstances, the president's speech was not once interrupted by applause. He had less to propose in the way of initiatives than in his four previous UN speeches. He said he is ready to submit to the Senate for ratification the nuclear test ban treaty that he signed a year ago. He favors a standby - not standing - UN peacekeeping brigade, which would exist mainly on paper. He favors a permanent international tribunal to try human rights crimes.

Clinton may have reflected his acceptance of the reality that the public and congressional support for the UN that followed the Gulf war has been largely eroded by ill-conceived ventures like Somalia and Bosnia.

And, with a lot of other problems to occupy him, the president offers little leadership to Americans on UN policy. This seems to leave the field to Jesse Helms ... and to Ted Turner.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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