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Clinton in China: Perfect Campaigner

He was talking to a Chinese audience. And his comments were interspersed with translations into Chinese. But, except for that, this could well have been Bill Clinton on the campaign trail back home: Maybe Omaha. Or Walla Walla. Or Dubuque.

Mr. Clinton has become the campaigning president - whether at home or abroad. He's out selling his programs and himself - virtually all the time. He's good at this, and he knows he's good at it. It took that kind of super-confidence for him to challenge the Chinese president on Jiang Zemin's own turf.

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Was it a victory for the president, this trip to a China that is a major abuser of human rights? And did he make real headway against a Chinese leader who was not, even under Clinton's prodding, willing to apologize for his country's military turning its guns on the students at Tiananmen Square? Were the trade agreements that were consummated of more than minor importance?

It seems to me that we will have to wait months, and probably years, to judge the lasting worth of Clinton's trip. Perhaps historians will say the United States would have been better off if he had stayed at home.

But my judgment - admittedly a narrow one of a political writer whose canvas is the domestic scene - is that Clinton once more hit the ball out of the park as a political campaigner. His televised and radiocast comments and conversations with the Chinese people seemed to have gone over quite well with them. But of even more importance to supporters of the president, the gutsy Clinton performances undoubtedly shored up public backing at home.

Actually, Clinton has been riding high in the polls measuring his popularity. But other polls, showing a growing number of Americans becoming critical of what they see to be personal misconduct on the part of the president, have indicated Clinton's hold on public favor is on the edge of plummeting. Clinton's home run in China should hold off that decline for at least a while.

One commentator called it "Clinton luck" when the president was permitted a live TV broadcast of his news conference with Mr. Jiang and his meeting with students at Beijing University. But another interpretation might well have called it "courage" for Clinton to have been willing, and eager to test his knowledge and skills in such a challenging setting. What other president would have reached for an opportunity so fraught with the danger of possibly embarrassing himself and the US? I think most presidents would have seen this as entering a lions' den they'd avoid, not seek.

So whatever Clinton may have accomplished, I say now what I said as I watched Clinton masterfully perform this high-wire act in international diplomacy: I was proud of our president.

Poor Bill. He had to come home where the welcome and appreciation for his China feats are mixed with what he sees as the never-ending Ken Starr scrutiny into his personal conduct.

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Indeed, the president by now is probably ready for another trip abroad to get away from the Linda Tripps and the Monica Lewinskys and the whole mess in which he has long been entangled.

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