Hand-shaking Clinton revels in contact POLITICAL TRANSITION

JOGGING INTO POWER, WITH POPULIST STYLE

November 22, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Just before Bill Clinton was about to wad into a crowd of several thousand neighborhood folk in Washington last week, a Clinton adviser tried to squeeze in a quick policy briefing for the president-elect.

It was like trying to give an algebra problem to a kid with his nose pressed against a candy store window.

Mr. Clinton wasn't interested. Having been away from the roar of the crowd for two weeks, the perennial campaigner couldn't wait to splash back in, slap some high-fives, hug some toddlers, sign some autographs and breathe that adulation deep into his lungs.

He was back in his element and, spending almost as much time with the crowd of minority business owners and residents as he had spent earlier that day with President Bush, he assured them they hadn't seen the last of him.

Already, Mr. Clinton has sketched out the style of his presidency, portraying himself as a populist leader who will jog around the Mall, drop in for a cup of decaffeinated coffee at McDonald's, take bus trips across the country, eschew the private back entrances of buildings for more visible public entrances -- and mix with real people every chance he gets.

"I expect to be out in this city quite a lot," he told the mob of well-wishers Wednesday.

Those close to him say he comes by his gregariousness naturally. On the campaign trail, his entourage noted, he never met a hand he didn't want to shake. Any group of three or more was like a magnet to the man nicknamed Robocandidate, as irresistible as those friendly golden arches.

Even now, when he can finally take a break from winning friends and influencing voters, his aides say they feel like reminding him, "Bill, it's over. You won. We're not in New Hampshire anymore."

As he jogs through his neighborhood in Little Rock, Ark., these days, with his contingent of four or five Secret Service agents, he'll stop along the sidewalk to shake hands with a man walking his cocker spaniel. He'll wave to a housewife who's come out in her robe with her cup of coffee to see the president-elect. He'll even duck his head into a car that's waiting at a stoplight, or chat with the cashier at the drive-through window of Bojangle's fried chicken.

One of his closest longtime associ ates suggests that the constant campaign mode is a product of the Arkansas governor's deep desire and need for approval, the same trait others have cited as the source of his compromise-seeking manner -- or what the Republicans called "waffling."

But if Mr. Clinton is a natural schmoozer -- much like Lyndon B. Johnson, who once reached into a stranger's coat pocket and pulled out the man's hand to shake -- he is also a shrewd politician keenly aware of his mission.

As the president-elect told his soon-to-be neighbors this week, he wants to send a message to America that "I'm going to do my best not to get out of touch as president."

President Bush lost the election largely on the notion that, holed up in the White House cocoon, he had lost touch with everything from the economy to the mundane drama of everyday life. Indeed, he rarely stepped out among the masses, except to go to his favorite Chinese restaurant in Arlington, Va.

Even when Mr. Bush jogged, it was usually within the secure confines of Camp David or the Naval Observatory, unlike Mr. Clinton, who sometimes makes his major announcement of the day during his post-jog mingling.

"You have a sense with Bill Clinton that it's a combination -- he's being himself, but he also knows it's a good piece of political theater," says presidential historian and author William Leuchtenburg. "He is very calculating. He doesn't do things by chance. He's thought out the kind of president he wants to be, the kind of image he wants to convey. And we'll continue to see periodic symbolic acts of this sort."

But just how frequently the town will see these acts is an open question. Already, the Secret Service knows it could have its hands full with such a restless president. And Mr. Clinton said Thursday that he hoped to keep up the high profile as president, "if it doesn't give the Secret Service a coronary."

"Of course, it's more of a challenge," says Special Agent Gayle Moore. "But it's totally up to him. If he wants to jog and make impromptu stops at McDonald's, we'll do our best to accommodate him."

A number of past presidents, starting with Harry Truman, have tried to break out of the protective bubble, but many soon found the task more difficult and troublesome than expected.

Mr. Truman took daily walks downtown in the early days of his presidency, but the morning constitutionals stopped fairly soon. With all the stoplights red so that the president could roam the streets, he ended up causing major traffic jams.

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