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Candid Clinton Photos Hit, Hailed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pictures of President Clinton slow-dancing with his wife on the beach, frolicking with his puppy in the Caribbean surf and affectionately hugging his daughter and wife provide some of the warmest family pictures of his five years in office.

But White House press officials are fuming. They charge that the surreptitious video footage and still photos--taken by photographers lurking in bushes about 100 yards away from where Clinton was relaxing during his brief vacation late last week in the Virgin Islands--are an invasion of the first family’s privacy.

Clinton, when asked Monday about the pictures, agreed that his privacy was violated, but added he couldn’t help but appreciate the photograph of himself and his wife dancing in what he had assumed was an intimate moment away from the public’s eye.

“I like it quite a lot, but I didn’t think I was being photographed,” Clinton said about the picture of him and Hillary Rodham Clinton in an embrace, wearing bathing suits.

For some, the access gained by the photographers raised questions about the president’s security. For others it sparked concern about the ethics of photojournalism, particularly in the wake of the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

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The White House stressed that the president’s safety was not jeopardized. The Secret Service was aware of the presence of the photographers but decided they did not pose a threat, officials said.

“I think the president is confident that he’s well protected by the Secret Service,” White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said. “I think if there had been any security threat they would have attended to it appropriately.”

But an outside security analyst said the incident implies a worrisome breach of security. “The rule of thumb is that if you can take a picture from a position you can also snipe from there,” said Neil Livingstone, a terrorism consultant for Washington-based Knoll Associates.

For the White House press office, the main issue is the first family’s right to privacy, and officials threatened to provide less access to them in the future.

“We believed--I guess incorrectly--that the people who traveled with us would have more respect for their privacy than they did,” steamed Deputy Press Secretary Joe Lockhart, who was on the trip. “It’s somewhat surprising that people were resorting to hiding behind the bushes. It resembles people trying to cover Madonna’s wedding, not people trying to cover the president of the United States.”

Clinton said it was up to the media to decide whether any line of propriety had been crossed.

The White House press corps was split over whether the NBC and CBS network camera crews or the still photographer--Paul Richards of Agence France-Presse, the French news service--broke unwritten rules of journalistic ethics. Some said the shots of the Clintons were enterprising journalism, others said they had reduced the White House press corps to the level of the infamous paparazzi.

All of the beaches on St. Thomas are public. The Secret Service had cordoned off the area directly around the first family’s borrowed vacation house and the small beach below it. But the vantage point from which the shots were taken on Friday and Sunday was not part of this off-limits area.

Bob Pearson, Agence France-Presse’s chief of photography for the Americas, said Richards is getting kudos for the picture of the first couple’s dance, which ran in color on the front page of The Times on Monday and inside the Washington Post, among other places. The caption on the photo as sent by the news service did not indicate that it had been taken without the first family’s knowledge.

“This is a very unique situation where there’s a very, very touching photograph of a moment between the first lady and the president, and I think it’s a very nice picture,” Pearson said.

“We feel if the tragedy with Diana had not happened, it would not have been as big a deal as it was,” Pearson added.

But veteran Associated Press White House photographer Greg Gibson, who was on the vacation trip but did not take surreptitious photographs, said he thinks hiding in the bushes to take pictures of the first family “cheapens what we do.”

“I would hate to see the presidential beat degenerate to a paparazzi beat,” Gibson said.

Nonetheless, he praised the photo of Clinton and his wife dancing, predicting it will likely win journalistic prizes.

“In the six years I’ve covered the Clintons, it was probably the only real, true moment I’ve ever seen” on film, Gibson said.

The CBS camera crew that captured the first family’s last swim on the beach Sunday said they positioned themselves in the bushes near a public beach where people were enjoying the sunshine.

“We did not want to be obvious if we had been obvious we would have lost that position,” said Benson Ginsburg, the CBS cameraman. “I am convinced that the Secret Service knew I was there. If they thought us to be a threat, we would have been asked to leave.”

He added: “I don’t think we crossed ethical bounds. They were good pictures and none of it was staged and we did it legitimately and we’d do it again.”

This was no different, he said, than taking pictures of President Reagan and his family with a telescopic lens from a mountain three miles from their Santa Barbara ranch. This is how the public got to see the memorable pictures of Reagan on horseback or chopping wood.

Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation journalism fellowships at Harvard University, said he believes the photographers crossed an ethical line if they were trying to hide their presence. Although photojournalists sometimes are justified in shooting surreptitiously--if the public good is served--Kovach said this was not such an instance.

“It was only for curiosity’s sake,” he said. “That’s turning the White House or the presidency into a soap opera.”

But Kovach wondered about whether the Clintons, as they were dancing, really believed they were alone.

“I’m skeptical how candid it was,” said Kovach, adding that the first couple is savvy enough to have suspected that lenses were pointed their way. “I have difficulty believing that we have, in that photograph, been witness to something deep and meaningful in the relationship between the president and the first lady.”

But Chuck Violette, another member of that CBS crew, said: “I don’t think they were playing for the camera as sometimes they do.”

Violette said the beach scene changed his impression of Clinton and his wife. “I was of the opinion that there wasn’t much romance” between them, said Violette, who has covered the White House for 20 years.


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