As I watched the president's first full-fledged press conference in a long time, my thoughts went back to when I was nine years old and my mother took me to the Orpheum Theater in Champaign, Ill., to see the great escape artist, Houdini. Mr. Clinton was certainly "doing a Houdini" as he artfully dodged a barrage of questions relating mainly to whether he had had a sexual relationship with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.
Many questions assumed that there had been this kind of relationship. One reporter asked him about whether he thought the president should be a role model. Another sought to persuade Mr. Clinton to talk about how a president should conduct himself. Another reached out for a Clinton discourse on character.
Clinton simply stood firmly behind a denial that he had made some time ago. He even pulled back from an earlier promise of providing more details. But the president somehow avoided the appearance of being on the defensive. Instead, he was able to portray himself as the victim of an overzealous independent counsel. Very deftly he made Kenneth Starr out to be the bad guy.
Indeed, although the press pounced on Clinton and pawed him over at length, it must be said that in the end the president once again proved himself a master at deflecting such questioning.
But whereas I had been delightfully entertained by the real Houdini, I was saddened at that press conference by Clinton's unwillingness to answer questions that related directly to his truthfulness - and credibility.
It was far from a presidential triumph. Instead, Clinton was revealing - for all the world to see - a basic, although surprisingly unnoticed, failing in his presidency: He's increasingly becoming preoccupied with these scandals, and this is diverting him from doing his job as president.
Oh, yes, almost every day he tells us that he isn't letting Mr. Starr, Whitewater, Ms. Lewinsky, and so on, take him away from "doing his work for the American people." Methinks he insists on that point too much.
The diversion of this president was so very much in evidence at the press conference. The reporters started out with scandal-related questions and came back with more such queries again and again - despite Clinton's efforts to call on journalists who would move in other directions.
Thirty-six "scandal" questions were asked, counting follow-ups. That's half of the questions asked at the session. That's diversion!
Look, too, how he's running away from his problems, how he thus is being diverted from putting as much time as he should into his domestic agenda.
Other presidents have done it: When they were in trouble at home, they traveled abroad. And, boy, has Clinton been traveling!
Certainly, he has looked good and done some good in these foreign appearances. But, protest as he may, this incessant traveling - on trips around the US, too - has sidetracked Clinton substantially from fully articulating and carrying forward a domestic agenda.
Remember how when Clinton was reelected we heard from those in his inner circle that he was going to make his next four years "historic"? That is, the president was said to be focusing on compiling a record that would impress the historians who had given him only a "C" grade for his first term. Well, it seems clear that these scandal-related allegations have up until now kept Clinton away from concentrating on improving his performance.
Clinton must know how much these scandals are marring his administration - no matter how much he tells us to the contrary. His frustrations did, indeed, show through just a tiny bit at the press conference: a little pique here and there.
A few days after that big press conference the president met with reporters in a smaller session that was meant to focus on foreign policy. The first question was about Clinton's invoking of executive privilege in the Lewinsky inquiry.
Clinton simply can't get away from these scandals.