MOSCOW — President Clinton, speaking to the Russian people Sunday on a televised radio talk show, defended the right of a free press to criticize its country's leader--even if sometimes it is "personally painful."
Becoming the first U.S. president to appear on a call-in show here, Clinton said he had always tried to be a "good friend" to Russia. Clinton noted that his weekend summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin marked his fifth visit to Moscow.
"I have worked for eight years for a strong Russia," Clinton said. "I want Russia to be strong and prosperous. But I also want it to be democratic; to respect the differences of its people--religious, ethnic and otherwise--and to be governed by the rule of law."
Appearing relaxed and smiling frequently, Clinton displayed a charm rarely shown by public officials here. He glossed over recent differences between the U.S. and Russia--such as Moscow's opposition to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's bombing of Yugoslavia last year and Western allegations that Russian troops have committed atrocities in Chechnya--and sought to strike as positive a tone as possible.
It was no accident, however, that Clinton chose to appear on Echo of Moscow radio and NTV television, which have been two of the most vocal media outlets in criticizing the new Russian president. Both are owned by Most-Media, which was raided last month by the tax police in what many saw as a government attempt to intimidate the media.
Clinton told listeners that he had discussed with Putin the need for a free press here and that the Russian president--a former KGB agent--appeared to agree.
"It can become personally painful if someone says something that maybe they shouldn't say, but the society is stronger with a free press," Clinton said. "If something is said that you don't agree with, you go out and disagree. You tell the people your side and you trust them to make the right decision. That's what I believe gives you the strongest society."
Clinton did not speak directly of his highly publicized affair with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky but alluded to the scandal that almost cost him his job.
"I think it's fair to say that no one in modern history in our country has had either more negative press or more painful press than I have," he said. "But I still think, on balance, as long as you get a chance to answer, the people have a chance to get it right."
Shortly after broadcasting the live call-in program, NTV aired its satirical puppet show, "Kukly," with a segment about Clinton coming to Moscow to visit Putin. In the show, Putin reverts to his KGB ways and tries to "recruit" Clinton--code-named "the Saxophone Player"--by blackmailing him over his avoiding the military draft, his marijuana use and his "womanizing."
"You can't blackmail me because the American people know all about me," the Clinton character says.
Asked on the talk show about such satire, the real Clinton said he does not mind jokes at his expense--so long as they are not malicious.
"There is almost nothing anybody can say to make fun of me that hasn't been said already," the president said. "I think we need people to make fun of us so we don't take ourselves too seriously."
The Kremlin, in contrast, has demanded that the "Kukly" show take the Putin puppet off the air.
Clinton fielded a wide range of questions during the show, noting that he made his first dollar by mowing the lawns of neighbors when he was 9 or 10 years old and that he occasionally goes shopping to stay in touch with the public.
He said he knows how to drive a car and once took flying lessons, but that he does not know how to fly a plane, drive a tank or maneuver a submarine. Putin made a show of briefly piloting a fighter plane and staying overnight on a nuclear submarine during his recent presidential campaign.
In answer to another question, Clinton said he was happy about his relationship with his daughter, Chelsea, who is a student at Stanford University. When children get older, Clinton said, as a parent "you're always happy when they still want to be around you and spend time with you."
Clinton was asked if he was prepared to return to the White House as "first mister" if his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, someday won the presidency. Clinton said he is "very proud" of his wife, who is running for the Senate from New York, and that he would support her political career.
"I'm going to try to be a good citizen in any way that I can, both of my country and of the world, when I leave office," he added.