President Clinton on Wednesday implored top newspaper executives to give him some breathing room on Whitewater and let him "do the job I was hired by the American people to do."
In an otherwise colorless appearance before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Clinton grew angry and defensive in response to a questioner who compared the President's shifting explanations on the Whitewater controversy to a schoolgirl's excuses for not doing her homework.
"Maybe you have total and complete recollection of every question that might be asked of you at any moment of things that happened 12, 13, 14 years ago," he snapped at the questioner, John Simpson, international news editor of USA Today. "You think I should have shut the whole federal government down and studied these things full time?"
Editors in the audience seemed surprised at how testy the President sounded. "I hear that is about as angry as he gets," said Craig Ammerman, a newspaper consultant from New Jersey.
"He started long," quipped Burl Osborne, editor and publisher of the Dallas Morning News, referring to the pacing of the President's address, "and he ended surprisingly short," alluding to the President's temper.
Clinton has been embarrassed by a series of contradictory disclosures about the Whitewater real estate venture, in which he and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton were investors, and other aspects of their personal finances.
The White House has been forced on several occasions in recent weeks to revise previous accounts of the couple's investments. This week one senior aide acknowledged that earlier explanations of Mrs. Clinton's commodities trading are now "inoperative."
"All I can tell you, sir, is I have done my best to answer the questions asked of me," Clinton told the editors. "But can I answer every question that anybody might ever ask me about something that happened 10, 15, 17 years ago on the spur of the moment and have total recall of all of that while trying to be President? No, sir, I cannot."
"But the special counsel has a process for dealing with that, which would permit us to focus on the truly relevant questions and deal with it. And I have cooperated very well. I will continue to do that. I'll also do my best to give more information to the press.
"But I would just like to point out that the people who asked for the special counsel asked for it and said: 'The President ought to do this so we can clear the air and he can go on and be President.' "
Clinton's appearance began with a 30-minute address about the Administration's policies on strife in the former Yugoslavia and an outline of his now-familiar health care, welfare and anti-crime proposals. The 800 or so newspeople sat silently through the speech, in which the President urged the executives to use their newspapers to improve their communities.
In the question period that followed the speech, Clinton was asked how he would grade the press on its coverage of Whitewater.
"If I could grade the press, I wouldn't. Especially not now," Clinton said, to the laughter of the crowd.
But he noted that many in the media have questioned whether the Whitewater story was being overplayed. "If you have any doubts about it, then that's good because you ought to be having doubts about things like this," he said.