Clinton visit to McDonald's helps explain why he won

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

November 21, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- One of the enduring legends here is about Richard M. Nixon and Herblock, the liberal cartoonist for the Washington Post. For years Herblock had depicted Nixon with a heavy black beard, sometimes dripping slime. But when Nixon became president, Herblock drew a cartoon giving him a clean shave.

The message was that everyone, even Richard Nixon, is entitled to a fresh start when he comes to the White House. The lesson Bill Clinton should take to heart, however, is that in Washington an era of good feeling can be brief indeed.

Clinton has enjoyed the kind of reception here this week that Jimmy Carter was given after he walked from the Capitol down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House on Inauguration Day. Washington marveled at the implications of that gesture. This was going to be a president accessible to the common man. Eight months later Carter was being badly wounded by a controversy involving the banking practices of his budget director, Bert Lance.

The president-elect was the subject of similar excesses of enthusiasm when he visited the capital this week. He actually went for a walk through a largely black business district, imagine that. He actually showed up at a McDonald's for a coffee after his morning run, can you believe it. He actually was received warmly by Republicans as well as Democrats when he visited the Capitol. He and President Bush actually met for two whole LTC hours, if you can imagine. And then he even had dinner with Pamela Harriman, in Georgetown, if you can imagine.

This fawning oh-the-wonder-of-it-all response to the incoming president is not surprising in most respects. This is, after all, a Democratic city in the sense that the permanent establishment has always been heavily Democratic. And, partisanship aside, there is a certain amount of delight at simply having someone and something different in the news.

Thus, all the carping doubts of the last year were put aside, at least for the time being. No one was boorish enough to bring up Gennifer Flowers or inhaling marijuana or who dodged the draft during the Vietnam War. That was Slick Willie, this is the president-elect. In politics, winning is a transforming act.

But the president-elect and his advisers would be making a grave mistake if they imagined there is any bottomless well of good will awaiting him. As Bush learned to his rue, public opinion can turn upside down in a matter of weeks. And the laws of politics have not been repealed. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole may be charming and welcoming at a luncheon in the Capitol but don't expect him to sit by silently and accept the Family Leave bill or higher taxes on the wealthy or, for that matter, much of anything on the Clinton legislative agenda.

Clinton would be prudent to keep an eye peeled for some of his fellow Democrats, as well. His tax and fiscal plans inevitably will be revised and rewritten by those in Congress with agendas and fiefdoms of their own. It would be a miracle if it took less than two or three years to win approval for any comprehensive plan for improving the health care system. The notion of the White House writing any successful campaign reform plan is laughable.

None of this will come as a surprise to the new president, however. Despite all the Republican jokes about Arkansas, Clinton is a highly sophisticated politician who has been playing on the national stage for years. He knows which fork to use -- and which buttons to press to accomplish his political purposes.

That, of course, is what this week was all about. After two weeks in which he seemed to be making Little Rock the capital of the universe, there were the usual predictable grumbling stories about the slow pace of the transition and how Clinton couldn't seem to make up his mind about who to put in charge of what.

Now President-elect Clinton has done what candidate Clinton did so successfully all through the primaries and the general election campaign: He has taken control of the national agenda. The story is not the troubles he may be having in deciding on a Treasury secretary but instead about how he is still keeping in touch with the common people.

It may seem to be pretty primitive politics. But it is a political skill that can sustain a president after the initial oohing and aahing has passed. So there is no harm in Clinton reminding the wise guys in Washington that he didn't get here by accident.

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