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Dispatches The Buzz (Publick Occurrences)

Quiet thaw?

Chinese military leaders allowed an American delegation led by defense secretary William Cohen to visit a sensitive military post that monitors air and missile defenses for 200 miles around Beijing. It was the first time China had allowed any foreigner into the command center and was a visible sign of the quiet thaw in U.S.-China military relations over the last year. Mr. Cohen concluded his visit by meeting with China's president, Jiang Zemin, and signing a protocol for contacts between American and Chinese naval and air forces.

Tense and tension

Secret tapes. The Watergate complex. A shifty-eyed president mumbling uncomfortably before the TV cameras. Some say history repeats itself, but this was downright eerie. President Nixon's fall was a quarter-century ago. This time around, it was Bill Clinton, perhaps looking down a similarly dark tunnel. The story broke last Wednesday morning with such sudden ferocity that even the heads of the president's spinmeisters seemed to be spinning: Mr. Clinton had reportedly carried on an affair with young White House intern Monica Lewinsky, then urged her to lie when confronted by investigators. Most damaging of all, there were hours of tapes detailing the purported affair, so the usual denials might not work this time around. Not that the White House didn't try. Early in the day, spokesman Mike McCurry read a brief statement insisting that "the president is outraged" by the charges. But reporters in the standing-room-only crowd registered levels of skepticism unseen since the Reagan years, pressing Mr. McCurry again and again on his carefully worded statement: Why did he repeatedly stress there had been no improper sexual relationship? Why wouldn't he deny coaching Ms. Lewinsky on her testimony? Even Bob Bennett, the president's normally blustery lawyer, seemed shaken. After admitting that he didn't know the content of the tapes, "I smell a rat" was the most moral outrage he could muster. The alleged facts in the case came to light slowly, and each new revelation rocked the Washington press corps as the day wore on. Ms. Lewinsky had started working in the White House in 1995, at age 21. She claimed the affair began soon after that and lasted for a year and a half. Around the time of the 1996 elections, Clinton handlers moved her to the Pentagon, where she met Linda Tripp, to whom she confided her heartbreak and confusion. It was her new friend who eventually alerted independent counsel Kenneth Starr to the situation and agreed to wear a microphone to several meetings. Proof that he'd had a fling with a young woman not much older than his daughter Chelsea would prove politically devastating to Mr. Clinton, but more serious still were the legal implications. Ms. Lewinsky had already provided a sworn affidavit stating that she and the president had never been intimate. But, she told her friend in one taped conversation, that denial came at the president's insistence. He allegedly put her in touch with Vernon Jordan, the Washington superlawyer and Clinton confidant, who told her that even if her lie should be discovered, perjurers were never prosecuted in civil trials. About the time Ms. Lewinsky learned she would be deposed in the Paula Jones case, Mr. Jordan reportedly began trying to get her out of Washington. At the time, she was earning about $32,000 at her Pentagon job and living in the swank Watergate complex. She eventually was offered a position in Revlon's public relations department in New York. Mr. Jordan, who sits on the board of the cosmetics giant, refused to talk to reporters. By midday everyone appeared to be hedging. Ms. Lewinsky's attorney refused to stand by his client's earlier affidavit. Instead, he allowed that "The president of the United States's judgment is seriously in question, and he has obviously taken, if it's true, a misogynistic attitude towards women in general, and certainly young women." Later in the afternoon, President Clinton himself talked to Jim Lehrer of the PBS News Hour show. With pronounced bags under his eyes and a bulging jaw muscle, Mr. Clinton looked unusually tense. But it was the tenses of his verbs that really attracted attention. "There is no improper relationship," the president insisted repeatedly, carefully avoiding use of the past tense. The possibility that the president was hedging on his earlier, sworn testimony about the affair led Rep. Henry Hyde (R.-Ill.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to raise the issue of impeachment, though he cautioned that the facts were still too sketchy to draw any conclusions. But conclusions may come relatively quickly. With Ms. Lewinsky scheduled to be deposed on Friday, (Thursday night, a U.S. District Court judge postponed any deposition indefinitely) her lawyer late Wednesday night was calling for Mr. Starr to "protect" his client, who had been "ravaged" by the day's events. To most observers, that was an invitation for some sort of plea agreement. If Ms. Lewinsky does cooperate with prosecutors, and if sufficient corroborating evidence is found, the ultimate conclusion could well be reached: an early conclusion to the Clinton presidency. Day two of the unfolding scandal opened with more morning news-show speculation along those lines. Later in the morning, independent counsel Kenneth Starr made his first appearance since the big story broke. "We are moving as promptly as we can," Mr. Starr said, without much elaboration. The independent counsel dismissed a shouted question-"What's this got to do with Whitewater?"-by noting that his jurisdiction had been properly expanded. Mr. Starr also went out of his way to emphasize the "presumption of innocence" that exists in the American justice system.

All dressed up ...

Fidel Castro shed his fatigues in favor of a dark blue suit and tie to welcome Pope John Paul II, who began a five-day mission to Cuba Jan. 21. The two septuagenarians were quick to lay out their agendas, the pope calling for greater freedoms in Cuba and an end to the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, while Mr. Castro called U.S. policies toward Cuba "genocidal" and tried to align communist dogma with church teaching. Mr. Castro, who last attended a Catholic service in 1959, granted Cubans a day off from work, and thousands lined streets to greet the pope.

... and nothing to spend

Asia's financial crisis took a bite out of Indonesia. The country's currency, the rupiah, hit an all-time low (15,000 to the U.S. dollar), losing nearly 30 percent of its value in one week's time. Prices quadrupled as inflation soared, and government officials announced last week that they expect at least one million people to lose jobs because of the crisis. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill voiced opposition to Clinton administration requests for up to $20 billion in further assistance to the International Monetary Fund, which has already provided a $43 billion bailout arrangement with Indonesia.

A grim anniversary

As pro-lifers prepared last week to mark the 25th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade with their annual march in the Washington cold, the woman after whom the ruling was named stood inside a warm hearing room across the street from the Supreme Court building and expressed her hope there would not be a sad 30th anniversary. "Our country has lived with legalized abortion for 25 years now. From personal experience, I can tell you from the bottom of my heart that our experiment with legal abortion is an utter failure," Norma McCorvey told the assembled senators. Ms. McCorvey was known in the case by the pseudonym "Jane Roe." Just like her false name and the false circumstances that gave rise to the case, Ms. McCorvey said, the entire abortion industry "is based on a lie." Ms. McCorvey said she would spend the rest of her life "undoing the law that bears my name," and she called upon Congress to stop funding Planned Parenthood and President Clinton to stop vetoing partial-birth abortion bills. Just before the Jan. 22 march, Missouri senator and Republican presidential hopeful John Ashcroft emphasized the power of persuasion. Sen. Ashcroft held up an ultrasound image of his unborn grandchild and declared: "If we'd had this kind of technology that literally demolishes the artificial reasoning of the Roe vs. Wade decision, then I wonder if they would have made the same decision. Science and the truth have emerged." Even the pope weighed in on abortion during his Cuba trip, criticizing its widespread practice in the communist country and remembering the Roe anniversary in the United States: "The 25th anniversary of the decision ... is a call to people of good will to reflect seriously on the devastating consequences of that step." Veteran pro-lifers like march organizer Nellie Gray reflected that the struggle is long-term: "We have endured for a quarter of a century. Pro-lifers will never go away."

Middle East maneuvering

President Clinton held back-to-back meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in an attempt to get the Middle East leaders back to the negotiating table. Responding to Mr. Clinton's plea for "significant" Israeli troop withdrawals from the West Bank, Mr. Netanyahu told the president, "'We're prepared to move forward but not to jeopardize the security of the state of Israel." The prime minister also met with Christian leaders who have supported Israel's position, including Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Mr. Arafat met with Mr. Clinton Jan. 22 and was asked to step up security in Palestinian-held territory. Also under pressure from the Clinton administration were officials of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, who agreed to reverse an earlier decision and invite Mr. Arafat for an official visit. Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority denies that the Holocaust took place, but he said he hoped to tour the museum as a gesture to Jew