Clinton Does His Homework

GARRY WILLS

December 09, 1992|By GARRY WILLS

Chicago. -- There has never been a transition more scrutinized than this one. The television cameras are there every afternoon for George Stephanopoulos' briefing. I asked him if this new attention is daunting. He answered yes and no.

Yes, because ''I have to answer questions on a wider variety of issues'' than in the campaign. No, because ''I think, what does it matter if I give a bad answer?'' The campaign does not hang on it anymore. The presidency cannot be taken away from Mr. Clinton because his aide slips up once.

That reflects the combination of relief and serious homework going on in Little Rock. This is precious time for Mr. Clinton -- shortened from the earlier long transitions (pre-1933) that had a president-elect inaugurated in March. President Bush has called even this transition too long and ''ungenerous.'' After his humiliation, he just wanted out. But for Mr. Clinton, the two and a half months have been flying by.

Everyone wants his attention. Everyone has advice. Insecurely perched in a governor's mansion not properly his, he must staff a new government, set priorities, heal splits in his party and with Congress, mute attacks from a badly trounced but sullen set of opponents.

He has shrewdly decided to model his early steps on Ronald Reagan's, just as Mr. Reagan crossed party boundaries to make FDR his exemplar. The transition has involved a drastic change of rhythm -- a change Mr. Clinton grasped before the media did. Charging toward the finish line, feeding the media around the clock, Mr. Clinton set a He has shrewdly decided to model his early steps on Ronald Reagan's, just as Mr. Reagan crossed party boundaries to make FDR his exemplar.

pace that heightened expectations, so that his comparative placidity in the immediate aftermath left restless newspeople frustrated. How dare he not give regular press conferences? Why is he not announcing any appointments?

James Carville said, during the campaign, that the press is a great monster that must be continually fed. That is true when a candidate is in the suppliant position of begging for attention as a way of begging for votes. It is wise of Mr. Clinton to see that he is no longer in that position. He does not need attention so much as he needs time to do his homework.

Mr. Stephanopoulos goes before the press every day to tell reporters, in his soft, unyielding way, that he has nothing to tell them. There have been ''photo opportunities'' connected with Mr. Clinton's breaks: the daily run, the golf, the quick visits to malls or neighborhoods.

Mr. Stephanopoulos claims the president-elect is working an 18-hour day, reading books by Cabinet possibilities, consulting his wide network of friends and advisers. In Mr. Stephanopoulos' words, ''He divided the pie: He took the two main jobs -- policy and personnel.'' Then he turned the policy organization over to teams working for him. He has kept personnel to himself.

The literature on transitions, backed up by a brand-new Carnegie Institute Report, says that policy decisions should precede personnel ones. But they are two sides of a looped ribbon scrolling back on itself. The one must be done with the other in mind. The tight schedule does not allow for an outright separation between the two -- for all policy priorities to be in place before any personnel decisions can be made.

Mr. Clinton, by dividing things up but staying at the hub himself, by keeping to his own time and counselors, seems to have chosen the right way of choosing. That is all we can know of his performance so far. But Dan Quayle, of all people, said that if Mr. Clinton ran the country as well as he ran the campaign, we would all be well off. Already we can say that he has run the transition as well as he ran the campaign.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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