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Clinton Insists He Is 'Keying Up' as 2nd Term Winds Down

July 22, 1999|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — After more than six years, Americans may be suffering from "Clinton fatigue," if the pollsters are right. But, the lame-duck president says, don't count him out just yet.

"I don't feel myself winding down--I feel myself keying up," a loquacious Clinton announced Wednesday, near the end of a 70-minute news conference.

"I want to do more. I want to try to make sure that I give the American people as much as I can every day. So I've got plenty of energy, and I'll do whatever I'm asked to do," he said.

From China policy to rebuilding Kosovo, from the intricacies of tax policy to Campaign 2000, the president held forth with ease and good humor, signaling, if nothing else, that he intends to remain a player every day of his remaining 18 months in office.

The news conference was Clinton's second this week. On Monday, he held a joint session with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

"I think the president enjoys press conferences," said White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart. "You know how much he enjoys discussing the different policy proposals and the political aspects of the debate that goes on between us and Congress."

It helps, of course, now that the White House press corps is no longer hounding the president about a certain intern. During scandal-plagued 1998, Clinton rarely met with the news media. Now he intends to hold news conferences every four to six weeks.

The relaxed tone of Wednesday's news conference was set from the get-go, when a reporter loudly complained to the president that the bright lights in the East Room were obscuring her view of him.

Clinton playfully replied: "I've been waiting a long time for the halo to appear."

He then denounced at length the GOP tax cut proposal, vowing to veto it if Congress adopts it in its current form.

So eager was Clinton to talk policy that he scooped himself, disclosing that he intends today to release a study showing that 75% of Medicare beneficiaries lack sufficient outpatient prescription drug coverage.

"Clearly America needs a prescription drug plan that is simple, universal, and voluntary. Anyone who says we don't, I believe, is . . . out of touch."

Clinton echoed the praise that Vice President Al Gore recently lavished upon Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan but declined to say whether he would appoint Greenspan to another term. "I think he has done a terrific job. I have no idea whether he would even be willing to serve another term."

Clinton also revealed that he has been so busy--playing peacemaker in the Middle East, the Taiwan Strait and Northern Ireland--that he's yet to focus on the options for aiding Yugoslavia. He is to attend a Balkans summit in Sarajevo at the end of July.

Asked about his criticism last week of Texas Gov. George W. Bush's Campaign 2000 mantra of "compassionate conservatism" as a meaningless slogan, the president replied:

"I was just having a little fun. . . . If we don't have any laughs, it's going to be a very tedious struggle between now and November of 2000."

The most important thing, Clinton added, "is that all candidates make their positions clear on the great debates going on now and make their positions clear on what they would do if they got the job."

And that, he said, is precisely what Gore has done. Clinton also praised the vice president for proposals on education, gun control and other issues that go well beyond Clinton's agenda.

"I would, myself, vote against somebody who said, 'Vote for me and I'll keep it just like it is. Everything that Bill Clinton did is exactly what I'll do,"' the president said.

"I would vote against that candidate, because I do not believe that is the right thing to do. But what I think we should do is we should build on the progress of the last six years and go beyond it."

Moments later, Clinton had second thoughts--sort of--about discussing Campaign 2000. "My job is not to handicap this horse race. My job is to work for the American people."

Still, he just couldn't stay away from all the campaign questions. Asked what he would do if the first lady should run for the Senate in 2000, Clinton said: "If she's successful, I will happily go to the Senate spouses' meeting, if that's part of the job."

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