'Monica and Bill' Abroad

All I've been able to prove while away in the last two weeks is that you can't get away from the Monica Lewinsky story. Switzerland, Greece, Turkey: Monica and Bill are leading all of the papers. One newspaper's wrapup for its English-speaking readers of how Athenian newspapers were treating each development of the scandal put it this way:

"No strangers to tragic tales of the mighty falling, Greeks reacted to the travails of President Clinton with a combination of delight at the salacious details and bewilderment that a president's escapade could bring such ridicule on him and the most powerful office in the world."

My intent was to drink in the history and the beauty of a trip long postponed and looked forward to. And I did. But I couldn't ignore the big headlines on newspapers that were translated to me as saying such things as "The Lewinsky Scandal Shakes the White House," "Typhoon Monica," and "Global Ridicule for the Pitiful Planet-arch."

On my way back home I turned on CNN television in our hotel room in Athens and was greeted with the sight of the president being given a standing, supportive ovation before his speech to the United Nations. But my impression - brief as it was and certainly not an exercise in careful polling - is that a lot of people abroad are finding this president to be somewhat of a joke.

A Turkish guide, showing us around Istanbul, was explaining the marital customs of his country when someone in our party asked: "How about adultery?"

The young man could not understand the word, even when it was spelled out. Then an American called out: "Bill Clinton!" "Oh," the guide said, laughing. "Now I know what you mean." And we all laughed.

While I was shopping in Istanbul a clerk volunteered this commentary on Clinton. "I find it sad," he said, "that morals have fallen so low in your country."

But, earlier, a Greek in Athens after first expressing his contempt for Clinton, had made a comment along this line: How wonderful it was that the US government "had a system," that could deal effectively with this Clinton problem.

Our Greek guide to Delphi joked several times in English about "Clinton's escapades," and, after the laughter had subsided, she would speak the same words in Spanish to our large contingent from Latin America. Their laughter was even louder.

But I should not say here that everyone among the Europeans I was talking to was critical of Clinton's conduct. Some were; some weren't.

I asked this same Greek guide, "What do you think of what Clinton has done?" and she shrugged her shoulders and said, "All men do it."

Here, another Greek woman close by said: "That's right. All men do it." But these two women still were finding Clinton's actions very funny.

While on one of the Greek Islands I saw a newspaper containing a commentary on the US scandal by the former first lady of Greece, Margarita Papandreou, whose husband had also been caught in an extramarital affair. But while taking the position that it was time for Americans to put the scandal behind them, she would in no way excuse the men for their actions.

"The men in power," she wrote, "have a responsibility to their families, friends and coworkers, to the voters, to their office. From the time they decided to get into public life, their private lives were open to scrutiny."

I cite this comment because I've heard so very often from apologists for Clinton that his behavior is finding disfavor only among Victorian-minded Americans - and that the "more sophisticated" people in other countries, particularly in Europe, pay little attention to the peccadillos of their leaders.

Well, in my very short visit to Europe I found evidence that our president isn't being given the benefit of this "sophisticated" judgment - certainly not by everyone. Indeed, without reaching too far, I've concluded that a lot of Europeans are laughing at Clinton's escapades.

And laughing, in my book, falls short of expressing the kind of respect a world leader should have if he is to maintain his moral authority.

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