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A Tardy Guest Can Mean a Good Story

HOW often do readers ask this question: Do guests at the 8 a.m. Monitor breakfasts frequently come in late? Well, since we are talking about some 2,800 such gatherings over nearly 30 years, it is impossible for me to look back and provide anything like a precise answer. But with most public officials tardiness is rare, and when it happens it sticks out.

Hubert Humphrey always came about a half hour late. But we reporters allowed for that. At the many Humphrey breakfasts most of us simply arrived about 30 minutes late too, knowing that we would be rewarded with a talkative and often newsmaking senator or vice president who would go on and on, for an hour and a half at least.

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For such generosity we excused a guest who, we knew, had trouble dragging himself out of bed in the morning.

But, with rare exceptions, our guests have been punctual. Then they usually rush away promptly at 9 to appointments at the Capitol or the White House or wherever they hold positions.

So it was that when Defense Secretary William Perry kept us waiting the other morning, he stirred up a lot of reportorial interest. Mr. Perry has a reputation for always being on time. So speculation was passed around the breakfast table that "something big must be delaying the secretary."

The first question to Perry, who came in finally at 8:14 (not terribly tardy), was: "Anything up, Mr. Secretary, that you are a little late?" After apologizing for the delay, Perry said:

"I had a call from Warren Christopher. We were comparing notes about what's going on in Croatia and Bosnia. He also took the occasion to tell me that the story - which was in the New York Times - about a big dispute between the Pentagon and the State Department was not correct. He had no concern with it."

The Times' story Perry was alluding to that morning had led with this: "Secretary of State Warren Christopher, worried that the efforts to repair relations with Beijing could be threatened by the case of two American military officers caught watching military exercises from the Chinese coast, has demanded an investigation into why the Pentagon sent the men on such a politically risky mission, senior administration officials said today."

Here Perry went on to emphasize that Mr. Christopher "had no concern with any actions the Pentagon could take" relating to these two officers and that "he didn't know any State Department officials that did."

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Then Perry told us the China-related discussion between him and Christopher was subordinate to their chat about "what was going on in Croatia - what can and should be done about that from our point of view."

MUCH of the remainder of the hour was devoted to questioning Perry on the situation in the Balkans. This quiet-mannered man at one point showed a little fire when he strongly resisted the assertion from one questioner that this administration had added to the public confusion about what is going on by failing to put together a "clear, consistent policy."

"I dispute that," he said. "The policy has been clear and unchanging, not only for the two and a half years of the Clinton administration, but many aspects of policy remain invariant from the Bush administration."

Then he added firmly, "The most important aspect of that policy is we are not going to become a combatant in the war in former Yugoslavia. Some people don't agree with that policy and dispute it for that reason, but there should be no confusion on that point."

Afterward reporters commented that Perry was sending out a strong message at the breakfast: that in the face of escalating problems in the Balkans, the United States will stick to its guns on basic policy.

The first question to Perry, who came in finally at 8:14 (not terribly tardy), was: 'Anything up, Mr. Secretary, that you are a little late?'

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