How `Billary' Played in Asia

Asians eye America's first couple with curiosity, but prove unafraid to hurl pointed questions

`DID Mr. Clinton really pay $200 for that hair-cut?" a Korean co-ed, Chung Joo Eon, asked last week when the United States president passed through Seoul.

In Japan, another co-ed asked Bill Clinton directly about his wife's strong influence in government.

At a dinner, a Japanese reporter asked Clinton if he liked the sushi. "We even have a sushi bar in Arkansas!" the former governor beamed back.

As they breezed through Japan and South Korea on a six-day trip, the Clintons raised many an eyebrow and wrinkled many a brow. Asians were getting their first look at America's First Couple, and they weren't afraid to ask questions. The Clintons were watched like pet crickets in a bamboo cage.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, who took on an Asian-style presence of a dutiful and low-profile wife during the trip, was even more closely watched - especially her "do." She took the spouses' tour, and eyed the tourist sights with a Nancy Reagan smile.

The president's words were scrutinized for his real intent on trade and military issues. But in Asia, style counts as much as substance, sometimes more. It was widely noticed that Clinton, on his first overseas trip since taking office, seemed overly conscious of acting statesmanlike in these foreign lands. He often appeared stiff, wearing a "how'm-I-doin'?" look.

Perhaps he had a case of once-burned, twice-shy. Last April, he offended Japan when he told Russian President Boris Yelstin that the Japanese do not always mean "yes" when they say it. Try as he might, Clinton couldn't always get it right on this trip.

With one eye on his TV image back home, the president tried to show an easy and enthusiastic style at the summit of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations in Tokyo. But he ended up looking like he was the host for the formal G-7 gathering.

No bother, though. The ever-polite Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, the real summit leader, let the president command the limelight, especially when Clinton walked with his arm around Mr. Yeltsin.

Prime Minister Miyazawa, however, was probably not so pleased when Clinton invited opposition Japanese politicians to a party in Tokyo.

And in Korea, many Koreans were offended when Clinton placed an interpreter between himself and President Kim Young Sam. Bad form, at least in Korea. And in the obligatory gift-giving during their first meeting as heads of state, Clinton and President Kim had different ideas of what is an appropriate gift.

The Clintons received a beautiful jewelry box and a calligraphy scroll personally stroked by the new Korean president himself. Kim, however, got a pair of jogging shoes. Alas, even though Kim is a jogger, South Korea is a world producer of sports shoes.

During the cold war, a US leader could be excused for his lapses in Asia. Lyndon Johnson once tried to say something touching in the local tongue to a South Vietnamese audience but ended up saying something foolish. It was forgotten.

No longer does a US president carry the mantle of leader of the free world or spokesman for the healthiest economy. Asians are creating their own markets with each other, their own styles of democracy, their own security.

The young people don't remember why the US fought three wars in this region in the past 50 years. They feel they can ask hard questions of a new, young US president.

"Does he really make all the decisions in the White House," asked Ms. Chung, trying to repeat a joke. "Or is it true that the US is run by `Billary'?"

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