Clinton warms the Siberian White House

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 April, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 April, 2000, 12:00am

WHEN you first walk into the grounds of the White House, home to the United States president at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC, things are not quite as you had expected.

The lawns look like they could do with a good mow, and the building a fresh lick of paint. Unlike other gleaming, white-marble Washington edifices, there is little that is grand from the outside. It is smaller than you had thought, and you quickly feel the 'goldfish-bowl' effect that has troubled many a president.

A relatively recent arrival to Washington, I had the privilege of attending my first presidential press conference at the White House last week. I had been to others with Bill Clinton, but never on his home turf.

It is often said that modern American presidents face far greater scrutiny than their predecessors, and every slip seems to find its way into print - or worse, film. That is only partly true.

When it comes to the press conference, Mr Clinton has followed in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan and has been happy to find other ways of communicating with 'my fellow Americans'. And given some of the questions he had to face, this is no doubt a smart move.

John Kennedy used to hold press conferences weekly, sometimes more often. No one makes that mistake any more. Now, entire quarters can drift by without the opportunity of a formal sit-down cut-and-thrust.

Walking up to the hallowed entrance, there are all manner of people drifting about: earnest, crew-cut young men in lumpy suits talking into their sleeves, and even casual labourers in dirty overalls.

Only when you are inside do you see the famous portrait of a young JFK, head bowed in contemplation, and, suddenly, you realise where you are. This, after all, is a painting that Richard Nixon and Mr Clinton have turned to for inspiration in their darkest moments.

Together with Taiwanese and Japanese journalists, I am ushered into a small ballroom filled with seats under giant chandeliers. Given the audience, nothing is left to chance and the portraits on the walls are covered with hardboard.

Finally, three rows in on the far side, we find our seats. Any thrill of seeing a sign marked, 'Reserved. White House Press - South China Morning Post' quickly evaporates when a veteran American colleague in the next seat announces loudly: 'Welcome to Siberia. Don't think we'll get in any questions from over here. Frankly, I blame it all on Nixon'.

A delegation of Polish education officials files into the row in front and I start to wonder whether he is right.

With the foreign press filling the wings, gradually the centre pews in front of the podium fill with the American notables of the official White House press corps. There is Helen Thomas of United Press International, the doyenne of the corps who predates the Kennedy White House. She always gets the first question.

Then, also in the front row, are the thrusting male 'educated tonsils' of American television, all pancake makeup, hair-gel and booming voices that seem to come at you in stereo.

Finally, 10 minutes late, Mr Clinton is announced, and there is a hush.

Everybody stands. You wonder why he does not do this more often. Whatever you think about him, Mr Clinton is a man who can fill a room with warmth and presence. Several hard-nosed members of the corps seem to be staring in enraptured wonder.

Right from the start, Mr Clinton leans forward on the podium, draping his large, lean hands over the top. Some leaders used the stand as a shield; Mr Clinton uses it almost as a step-ladder, climbing up and over the audience, pulling them in.

He reads slowly from a prepared text that covers various policy issues. He is not his quite at his best; he stumbles at the start. Some say he is tired after his South Asia excursions. Others say it is spring, and his many allergies are playing up.

Once the questions start, always prefaced with a deferential 'Mr President' and generally taken from a small circle of known figures, Mr Clinton is in his stride. Today there are few clear evasions, but long, eloquent policy outlines that convey thought and depth, and which are always backed by his hands that seem to stroke the air in front of the podium.

There are touches of humour and humanity. He talks about how British Prime Minister Tony Blair's baby, due next month, will 'keep him young'. He talks of 'living above the shop' and the irritations of being forced to remove a rodeo belt buckle to pass airport scanners.

I decide the seats are not too bad. We are, actually, quite close and can see the president flush when he is asked a curly question on the Lewinsky affair.

The American who welcomed us now looks desperate to get a question in. Amid a forest of hands, he holds up a large sign emblazoned with the words, 'Mr President'. It draws the stare of a Secret Service guard.

Our man is from a right-wing talk show, and should he get his question out it promises to be a cracker. Alas, the sign is of no help. With a quick nod, Mr Clinton turns and leaves.

The talk-show hack mutters: 'Siberia, Siberia. I'm still in Siberia. It was the same with damn Nixon.'