Whitewater Tracked Clinton In Europe, Taking Some of the Glitter Off Major Trip

OTHERWISE, it was a triumphant evening for President Clinton.

He stood in the Kiev airport with Ukraine President Leonid Kravchuk, the windows blacked by the night, before a group of White House press and Ukrainian reporters. Aides say he was relaxed, and, in fact, the color in his cheeks and the flash of his smile seemed to light up the corner.

When Ann Compton of ABC asked about former President Carter adding his voice to those calling for a special prosecutor on the Whitewater affair, however, the light left Mr. Clinton's face.

The Whitewater issue nipped at Clinton's heels during the Europe trip, and it was the source of his most-visible aggravation. He never escaped it, but it never seemed to amount to a serious distraction from his conduct of statesmanship.

In Kiev, he rebuffed the question, then had to listen to its translation into Ukrainian in which only the word ``Whitewater'' was familiar. Jaw set, eyes casting about restlessly, he shook his pique and restored the focus of the event.

It was not the first such incident that day. At the American ambassador's home in Prague, NBC's Jim Miklaszewski began an interview with Clinton with two questions about Whitewater. In the second incident, he answered only that he was sorry that Mr. Miklaszewski was not interested in Europe. Then he left.

Reporters and aides had wondered how long it would take for Whitewater to follow Clinton to Europe. To aides, the issue is an example of the Beltway mentality focused so narrowly on Washington gamesmanship. To reporters, the president should not be able to control and direct news gathering by how he plans his itinerary.

As it happened, Wednesday was the day Clinton relented. Even as Ms. Compton was asking her question, White House aide George Stephanopoulos was releasing communiques in Washington in which the president requested the appointment of a special prosecutor on the case.

What seems to especially bother Clinton is when reporters ask questions that ignore the subject of an event and clash with its tone. He cut short a Rose Garden press conference announcing Ruth Ginsberg's Supreme Court nomination last summer when ABC's Brit Hume asked about the politics of the choice. Judge Ginsberg had just given what Clinton regarded as a moving account of her life's preparation for the moment.

Whitewater provided the same kind of clash during the Europe trip. The subject was driven into the news as much by Democrats as by reporters. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York was especially prominent in calling for a special prosecutor to put an end to the mystery that fed the issue.

It's a close call whether he was throwing out a distraction from the president's turn as statesman or whether he was providing a political service - bringing the question to a head while the Europe trip minimized its news play.

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