Mr. and Mrs. Clinton Mingle Happily With the Press

I got to musing the other day. My thoughts went back to President Ford's first press conference after he had, as he said, put an end to the "long nightmare" of Watergate. Ford gave me the first question following those going to the two wire services, and I asked: "What are you going to do to see to it that there are no more Watergates?"

Ford obviously was waiting for the question. He said he would tack up a code of ethics in the White House for all to see. And then, he added firmly, he would see to it that this code was followed. Somehow in the euphoria of the moment I thought I felt a wonderful, fresh breeze blowing. From now on - it seemed to me at the time - the presidents and those around them would be people of high principle: Watergate would have a purging influence.

Well, maybe Watergate did bring about better, cleaner days in the White House. Ford came through unscathed. Jimmy Carter had his problems with longtime friend Bert Lance, who had to resign because of charges he had acted inappropriately as a banker back in Georgia. But Carter himself was always viewed as squeaky clean. Ronald Reagan had his Iran-contra scandal but somehow remained separate from it.

And here, today, we have a popular, personable young president who is having all kinds of accusations slung at him and his wife. His friends in earlier enterprises are going to prison. He's facing a sexual-harassment charge. And there now is an allegation in a new book - "Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America" by Roger Morris - of Clinton's connections to shadowy drug and smuggling operations run out of northeast Arkansas during the 1980s.

My musings took place at the president's annual picnic for the press, as I relaxed on the south lawn of the White House along with others from the Washington press. A storm was threatening - but the rains held off until we'd had several hours of good conversation with old friends and eaten more than we should have of food that the planners described as "elegant eclectic" but which all of us were calling "delicious." An apple-plum crisp, topped with vanilla ice cream, won the most praise at our table.

While we ate we were entertained by the Marine Band, led by famous bandmaster Col. John R. Bourgeois, who was making one of his final appearances before retiring. Then while the band played "Hail to the Chief," Mr. and Mrs. Clinton came on the stage that had been erected next to the White House.

The words from the Clintons were those of warm welcoming. But we journalists were there for more than a chance to schmooze with them and their top aides. How were the president and first lady taking the battering from all these allegations? That's what we really wanted to know - and we were looking hard for signs that they were hurting from the daily onslaught of charges.

The Clintons had fairly burst on stage, laughing and waving to reporters sitting close by. The president was wearing a golf shirt that my wife called "shocking pink." Mrs. Clinton wore a more subdued tan dress. They both seemed to be having fun - and it didn't seem to be contrived. I recalled some parties with President Nixon when he refused to come down from his quarters to meet with his guests from the media. President Johnson was on occasion also a "party pooper." That was when Nixon was being hounded over Watergate and Johnson was feeling the heat over the Vietnam War.

The Clintons' problems doubtless weigh on them. But they sure aren't letting it show. President Clinton, many observers said at the picnic, never looked better. He's trimmed down, ready for the campaign - unless he broke training that evening and "pigged out" on that apple-plum crisp and ice cream.

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