Question of honesty and commitment dogs Democratic front-runner Clinton leaves some without clear picture

March 22, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Staff writer

CHICAGO -- Bill Clinton marched down Western Avenue in the city's St. Patrick's Day parade last weekend on his way to what felt like a sure win at the polls. Smartly packaged for the day in a kelly green shamrock tie and boutonniere, surrounded by concentric circles of Secret Service, police on horseback, campaign aides and camera crews, he was clearly the man to watch.

But the average spectator couldn't.

So deeply cocooned was the presidential candidate with the Elvis cool and the made-for-media looks that not a soul on either side of the parade route could see any sign of Mr. Clinton.

If parade-goers balked at their obstructed view -- and they did -- it was hardly the first time voters have complained about not getting a clear picture of the Arkansas governor who last week became the Democrats' presumptive nominee for the U.S. presidency.

Even as voters have cast their ballots his way, they've also wondered about the core of the man -- a man who most outside of Arkansas had never even heard of before last fall (unless they recalled his disastrous nominating speech at the 1988 Democratic convention), a man who's been dogged by scandal, questions of character, ethics and vision, and the dubious moniker "Slick Willie."

"Initially, Bill really captured people's fancy with his vision for change," says Betsey Wright, Mr. Clinton's longtime chief-of-staff in Arkansas. "Then they discovered a candidate who had foibles and made mistakes. It's been a challenge for the campaign to merge that into one person."

Indeed, the "foibles" -- most notably his fuzzy responses to charges of marital infidelity and questions about his draft status during the Vietnam War -- have clouded the picture of this bright, articulate 45-year-old Rhodes scholar and Yale lawyer who's earned a reputation as a leading voice for an activist, reformed government and "opportunity with responsibility."

On the campaign trail, he is a natural. There is the poise and polish, the easy smile, the strapping presence that enters a room and immediately fills it up. Facts and figures and quick answers are always at the ready. He works a mike like a regular Phil Donahue, works a crowd like LBJ at his gregarious best. He asks your name.

He will so stir a Baptist congregation -- shouting "You must believe . . . " until he is red in the face -- that reporters call his road show the "Elvis Redemption Tour." He will engage a working-class audience with his country twang, tell a student group how his seventh-grade daughter faxes him her algebra problems. And then, after a 15-hour campaign day that includes a debate, a parade, five churches, one synagogue and assorted meet-and-greets, the Eveready battery of a candidate will treat a group of journalists to a nightcap of foreign policy talk.

"We haven't had a politician in a long time who's had the fundamental knowledge of public policy that he has," says Baltimore writer Tommy Caplan, Mr. Clinton's college roommate at Georgetown University. "It's surprising to some people. They could find it glib -- but they'd be wrong."

But the public also has glimpsed some rough edges that don't fit so neatly into the package -- outbursts, such as the one television cameras caught last month when Mr. Clinton mistakenly thought the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson had endorsed Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, that suggest why the governor once gave his chief-of-staff a set of earplugs.

"I've seen it a lot of times," Ms. Wright says of her former boss' anger, which she believes is linked to bad allergies that have long plagued the candidate. "He only explodes like that when his sinuses are unbearably painful."

But perhaps the greatest question about Mr. Clinton -- a brilliant student of U.S. politics who, at age 10, sat spellbound in front of a TV watching the Democratic National Convention and decided he wanted to play that game -- is one of his honesty and commitment.

Is he the devoted public servant driven by strong, personal beliefs and a grounded moral compass -- the Bill Clinton who drove the family Buick into riot-torn Washington the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed to get food and supplies to displaced blacks?

Or is he a political chameleon driven by sheer ambition and the direction of the wind -- the Bill Clinton who promised Arkansans in 1990 that he would serve out a complete four-year term as governor if they voted for him and is now on a carefully plotted journey to Washington?

"If he has an obsession, it's to make a difference in this world," says an ally, Ms. Wright.

But J. Bill Becker, president of the Arkansas AFL-CIO, gives this succinct answer to a question about the governor's guiding principle: "Winning."

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