Early Clinton decision should go over well ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

November 18, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- In advance of his first post-election visit to Washington to meet President Bush, President-elect Bill Clinton turned down with thanks Bush's invitation to stay at Blair House, the government's principal guest quarters across the street from the White House. He also said thanks but no thanks to Bush's offer to send a big military jet to Little Rock to fetch him.

Clinton's rejections may seem to some to be rank ingratitude. But the decision to make the trip on his own nickel -- or, rather, on his taxpayer-provided transition budget -- will be read by many as a good early sign that he really isn't, as Bush charged in the campaign, just another free-spending Democrat.

As decisions go, this one was small potatoes, but such symbolic moves at a time when all eyes are focused on the president-elect can bear a significant political harvest. They can help create an initial period of good will.

When Jimmy Carter hopped out of his limousine along his inaugural parade route and walked to the White House, the gesture signaled that he intended to be a man of the people. And when he had the heat turned down in the president's house and took to wearing sweaters as part of his campaign for energy conservation, he generated the kind of publicity for that campaign that money could not buy.

Unfortunately, he came to be seen for other reasons not so much as a man of the people as a man of less than presidential proportions, and the gestures became the subject of ridicule. The notion of the President of the United States carrying his own clothing bag became a bit much.

When Gerald Ford became president upon the resignation of Richard M. Nixon, he took his time moving into the White House, commuting to work from his very modest house in the Virginia suburb of Alexandria. The revelation that he toasted his own English muffins for breakfast before departing each morning cast him as a regular guy, without pretense, taking over the country's reins.

And when Lyndon Johnson moved into the Oval Office upon the death of John F. Kennedy and ordered the lights turned down, also for energy conservation, this gesture too set an example -- but one that Johnson's natural propensity for extravagance soon obliterated.

In 1961, Kennedy set a tone of elegance for his administration by restoring the old custom of wearing top hat and morning coat for his swearing-in -- and decreeing that others in the official party do the same. That tone was maintained throughout his brief tenure.

Such things are not, obviously, the stuff of which successful or failed administrations are made. But in today's television era particularly, when the public sees its leader in snatches of imagery, they can help get a new president off to a good start -- or a poor one, and as time goes on can give him a boost, or a knock.

The down side could be seen when it was learned, for example, that Nixon liked fires going in the White House fireplaces so much that, in the summertime, he would order the fireplaces lighted -- and at the same time the air conditioning turned on. So much for energy conservation in the Nixon administration.

Nixon's ordering the redesign of the White House guard uniforms so that they looked like something out of grand opera also was taken, justifiably or not, as evidence of an imperial attitude in office, later demonstrated in much more tangible ways in the Watergate and associated excesses.

It is much too early to discern whether Clinton's gesture of frugality will be followed by frugality in the Clinton White House. But a sharp contrast was provided on the day Bush returned from his post-election vacation in Florida. As he flew back to Washington on the presidential jet, a backup jet was taking Barbara Bush to Houston to do some house-hunting.

You can imagine what that little jaunt cost the taxpayers.

Clinton's decision to decline use of Blair House and a military jet to get him there should accomplish one thing anyway.

It should serve notice on any would-be John Sununus in the Clinton administration to think twice about how they get from here to there.

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