The Testimony of the Man in the Ringside Seat


October 28, 1992|By REG MURPHY

There is an uncomfortable man in Little Rock named Paul Greenberg. He writes political commentary for the largest newspaper in Arkansas. And he doesn't care for Gov. Bill Clinton.

''If there is a lodestar in his [Clinton's] career, it is the constant search for re-election, period. We may not have seen the dimensions of this emptiness yet in an American president,'' Mr. Greenberg said.

Then he compares Governor Clinton to former President Jimmy Carter. He said to a reporter the other day that Mr. Clinton has lived in the ''thin intellectual milieu'' of Arkansas, and that Mr. Carter had a wider understanding of how the world works.

Mr. Greenberg is no dunce, nor a sourpuss. If Mr. Clinton were elected, ''I don't think it would be the end of Western civilization. In fact, it would be the culmination of Western civilization in many aspects.''

But it is not great fun being the closest critic to a governor who is about to be elected president of the United States. Mr. Greenberg is in exactly the position where I found myself in the 1976 election, writing about politics in the home state of the candidate. The similarities are such that I get photocopies of some of Mr. Greenberg's work with notes from people who say things like: ''Reminds me of you on J.C.''

What Mr. Greenberg thinks he sees and senses apparently is not shared by most of the people who are watching the debates and preparing to vote next week. The voters and the pundits say they believe that Governor Clinton has trounced President Bush in the debates and the broader campaign.

Is this a case of Mr. Greenberg being too close to his subject matter? He wrote a column the other day with the headline, ''Bill Clinton Is a Presidential Debate.'' What he sees as duplicity apparently strikes the average voter as a man who sees both sides of issues. (Having once written a column about Candidate Carter with a headline which asked, ''Jimmy Carter Is Running for What?'' I understand Mr. Greenberg's point of view.)

It seems to me that Mr. Greenberg is seeing through to the very heart of this presidential campaign, even if it is at odds with what voters have concluded after watching the debates. The debates themselves have been useful because they have presented the candidates in a controlled and intellectual situation. But they probably have distorted more than they have clarified in all the circumstances of governing a nation.

Whenever President Bush has tried to make the point that ''you can't have it both ways'' in making decisions, his message seems not to have gotten through.

Maybe the voters really do want to have both a tax-the-rich program and economic growth. Maybe it was possible to say (as Governor Clinton implied) that one should vote with the majority to initiate Desert Shield unless the majority had all the votes it needed.

Perhaps the electorate is so tired of the wrangling in Congress that it just wants somebody who will say on television that everybody can get together on the issues. If that is what the nation wants, Governor Clinton's campaign has hit the right note.

Beyond doubt, the electorate wants to get something done. The last of the debates had the largest television audience of the three. That surely indicated that the voters are more serious than they have been in recent elections. (It also may say that some of them wanted to be entertained again by Ross Perot. Without him, one doubts that the audiences would have been as large.)

The problem is that a series of televised debates fails to inform voters very well. One of the debaters (President Bush) has to defend his record. Another (Governor Clinton) is fortunate enough to attack almost all the time. The third (Ross Perot) is blessed with that most valuable of all political credentials in the 1990s -- he's no politician. It starts lopsided, and it ends distorted.

There is no fixing that problem. But try to imagine for a moment that the situation were reversed: Governor Clinton defending, President Bush attacking and Ross Perot having served in Congress.

It cannot be imagined because the issues in a small state simply are not national in scope. A governor always will have the advantage because he can criticize without the necessity of defending, regardless of which party he represents.

The point, of course, is that the debates always are resisted by the incumbent, insisted upon by the insurgent, enjoyed by the outsider. The winner almost always will be the insurgent because he has very little to defend and the entire scope of national and world events to attack.

Can that be fixed? Probably not. So it becomes the uncomfortable lot of the closest observers to describe what kind of office-holder the insurgent will be. Often that is the local political commentator, who of course will bring his own biases to the discussion.

Paul Greenberg says that Governor Clinton would surround himself with the ''mod, pragmatic liberal set who look to the usual punditry.'' And for that the local political commentator is not going to be a very popular man in Arkansas for the next several months. It will not be the first time Mr. Greenberg has found himself on the scalawag side of local politics.

Having been in that same circumstance once, I can sympathize with him -- and devoutly hope that his assessment is wrong. But I doubt it.

Reg Murphy is the former publisher of The Baltimore Sun.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.