Clinton's inaugural plans put him in thick of things ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

December 07, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The elaborate scheme to make the inaugural week of President-elect Bill Clinton a blast not only for the Capital's Democratic elite but also for the common folks constitutes an imaginative gesture in keeping with the successful Clinton presidential campaign.

The plans include a bus trip into the city from Thomas Jefferson's stately home, Monticello, in western Virginia; a people's gala to collect food and clothing for the homeless; and an open house at the White House on a first-come, first-served basis the morning after the swearing-in. The Clintons also will include an open concert at the Lincoln Memorial and a lunch for some everyday voters they met along their way to the Nov. 3 victory.

These populist events won't replace the traditional inaugural balls for the elite, but will be add-ons that promise to make the 1993 inaugural week the most hectic since another Democrat, John F. Kennedy, turned the town upside down in spite of a memorably fierce snowstorm in 1961.

Jimmy Carter's inauguration in 1977 had considerable down-home flavor too, capped by the Carters' surprise decision to hop out of the presidential limousine and walk down Pennsylvania Avenue with daughter Amy in hand. But what the Clinton folks have in mind shapes up as the functional equivalent of an Arkansas Razorbacks' homecoming football weekend.

It all should be great fun -- for everybody but the Secret Service and other security forces pressed into duty to make sure the new president arrives safely in Washington and stays safe once he's here. Clinton's penchant as a candidate for plunging into crowds no doubt will have to be curtailed somewhat. But keeping him entirely under wraps would undercut what obviously is the public-relations message of the whole business -- that here is a president who comes from the people and intends to stay in touch with them.

Clinton aides say there is nothing basically new in the openness of the Clinton inaugural schedule, that he ran his campaign that way. While that is true, and it is also true that he had Secret Service protection along the way, including on his celebrated bus trips with Vice President-elect Al Gore, there is one substantial difference: Clinton is the president-elect, en route to being president.

History has established that once individuals reach positions of power, the risks to their safety from all manner of threats rise sharply. The assassinations of four American presidents and attempts on the lives of several others testify to that risk. In addition, the Secret Service checks out hundreds of presidential threats every year.

While this history dictates care, it doesn't suggest that the new ,, president go into hiding, either. Although a president who jumps out of a car to grab outstretched voters' hands can give ulcers to his security detail, the spontaneous usually is safer than the planned, well-announced event.

If Clinton and Co. can pull off their inaugural extravaganza without untoward incident, it is likely to give him the kind of send-off into his first term that he will need as he sets out on his expressed plan to make his first 100 days the most exciting since FDR's 60 years earlier.

The combination of crusty old-timers and eager newcomers awaiting his initiatives in Congress will be looking beyond the festivities of inaugural week to take their measure of the new president. But at the same time, they will be part of the festivities and as politicians are pretty good at sizing up the public mood. So putting on this big populist party can contribute to a sense that Clinton begins his term in a distinctly upbeat, even celebratory, climate.

Like his early visits to Congress to meet and talk with its leaders and members, the theme of openness that the inaugural week will seek to underscore may raise expectations that the new president will find very hard to meet. He sometimes makes it sound as though dealing with the Democratic Congress will be like going to a ballgame together, and he promises to continue his early-morning jogging and frequent drop-bys at fast-food spots for friendly chats.

Washington, however, is not Little Rock, and there is a world of difference between what a candidate and a president can do in meeting the folks. But for now, before hard reality sets in, it all sounds very refreshing.

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