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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

World Amused, Disgusted, Incredulous--Even Respectful

Reaction: But critics, admirers agree: It could happen 'only in America.' And as the drama unfolds, some moments of 'sober thought' are expected.

January 25, 1998|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — "Have you Americans gone crazy?" lawyer Philippe Jacquet asked over a morning mug of draft beer in a Paris bistro. "Already the jobs that people like us have are stressful. So when the president of the United States wants to have a little fun on the side, how can you be so uptight?"

From cafes in France to dinner tables in Beijing, from newsrooms in Brazil to the West Bank offices of the Palestinian Authority, the world is watching the drama unfolding in Washington concerning President Clinton's alleged relationship with a 24-year-old former White House intern, Monica S. Lewinsky, and allegations he or close friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. asked her to lie under oath about the relationship.

The reaction has been a mixture of amusement, disgust, incredulity and profound respect. "Only in America," say foreign critics. "Only in America," echo admirers.

"The failure of the president of the United States to escape the full force of the law, against his deepest wishes . . . sets an example to the rest of the world, to tyrannies and democracies alike," wrote John Carlin, a correspondent for the Independent newspaper of London. "Once the laughter has subsided, we might all fruitfully pause in wonder for a moment of sober thought."

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"It's like attacking him for a credit card problem," objected a Mexican senator, aghast that "the leader of the world" could be assailed for an alleged sexual dalliance. In Mexico, affairs with underlings are widely considered a perk of political power, and that is true in many other countries and cultures.

"If President [Boris N.] Yeltsin or Premier [Viktor S.] Chernomyrdin were exposed for having a love affair with a 20-year-old secretary, that would only boost their popularity," Andrei V. Kortunov, president of the Russian Science Foundation, said in Moscow. In Africa, "power is recognized as the most effective aphrodisiac," said Richard Cornwell of the Institute of Security Studies in Johannesburg, South Africa.

With the speed of light, information and opinions about the Washington controversy are flying around the world, over the airwaves and the Internet. In China, the Youth Daily newspaper has helpfully directed readers to a Web site where they can catch the latest developments.

Joon Ang Ilbo, one of South Korea's leading daily newspapers, has run photos of "Clinton's Women" and told readers of what it sees as the American chief executive's "insatiable desire for flirting."

In Britain, no stranger to sexual peccadilloes among its public figures, interest has been intense in the Clinton controversy, with the left-wing Guardian lamenting "that loose presidential zipper."

The establishment Times of London has assessed the possible offenses committed by Clinton as perjury, solicitation of perjury and obstruction of justice, and said that "if true, they would warrant indictment, a trial and certain resignation."

To some, all this ink and air time seems too much.

"With so many important matters going on, like the peace process in the Middle East or the Algerian civil war, it is hard to believe that everybody is worried about this trivial affair," complained Carlos Miranda, 60, an Argentine newspaper vendor on Corrientes Boulevard, the Broadway of Buenos Aires.

A U.S. congressman said Cuban leader Fidel Castro is astounded by the controversy and the attendant media uproar.

Castro "sharply criticized the American news media for the way they treat American officials," Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) told the Associated Press. "He was absolutely baffled by it."

Castro dropped in on an official Cuban reception for four Massachusetts congressmen Friday night, one of the events that are part of Pope John Paul II's historic visit to the Communist island.

Coming on the heels of Clinton's deposition in the case involving Paula Corbin Jones, the former Arkansas state employee who accused Clinton of having sexually harassed her when he was governor, the Lewinsky matter may appear to many non-Americans as just the latest of Clinton's alleged infidelities. But some commentators have been quick to point out the differences.

"The country [the United States] can live with sex affairs in the White House," Tagesspiegel, a Berlin newspaper said. "But not with a president who urges subordinates to lie under oath."

"This is a typical Clinton scandal," Hiroshi Kume, host of Japan's popular Friday evening television program "News Station," told viewers. "But Americans hate lies more than anything."

However, in Southeast Asia, the flap is generally seen as another example of the media's needless probing into private lives and of a mysterious U.S. need to tarnish its leaders. "What's the big deal?" one puzzled professor at Singapore University asked a visiting American reporter. "John Kennedy and his brother played musical chairs with their girlfriends. So why are the media taking off after Clinton?"

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