Audience praises Clinton on handling of problems 'Policy wonk' sets direction of talks ECONOMIC CONFERENCE AT LITTLE ROCK

December 15, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau Nelson Schwartz of The Sun's Washington Bureau contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Those who tuned in to the economic conference in Little Rock yesterday say the president-elect showed his true colors as a premiere policy wonk.

And they meant it as a compliment.

Even if cable TV viewers and public radio listeners learned little about the development of gas pipelines or the telecommunications industry during the first session of the two-day conference, many said they learned something about the raspy-throated man who chaired the proceedings. And for the most part, they liked what they learned.

"So far, I think I'm impressed," said Joyce Kuehne, of Mansfield, Ohio, a lifelong Republican who fervently supported independent Ross Perot in the presidential election. "And I'm actually sort of impressed with Clinton. He seems to have a real handle on the problems. I just hope he's not all talk and no show."

"I was very impressed with the presentations," said Bill Maier, associate director of the Center for Ethics and Social Policy in Berkeley, Calif. "But I was more impressed with the responses Clinton was giving in terms of the questions he was raising and the observations he made. People always called Clinton a policy wonk, but you can see that he does really understand these issues."

Yesterday's gold-plated town meeting on the economy -- broadcast on National Public Radio, CNN and C-SPAN and featuring a Jerry Brown-style 800 number for callers -- turned out to be, if nothing else, a public relations bonanza.

Many viewers or listeners -- which included a wide array of economists and political scientists and media observers -- praised the president-elect's command of the issues and the mere fact that he was holding the open sessions at all.

"All in all, I thought it was invigorating," said Marion Just, a fellow at Harvard University's center on media, politics and public policy. "I felt like calling my mother and saying, 'tune in.' It was an exciting opportunity to hear a president-elect getting advice. I can't recall ever hearing anything like that before."

Some suspected the televised conference, a precursor to more town hall meetings, bus trips, open houses and other populist touches the president-elect has promised, is likely to help Mr. Clinton build the consensus he'll need to sell his package.

"This was more political than economic," said John Bunzel, senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford University. "It's good politics to let people know that one can move beyond the narrow orbit of Washington. This was a beyond-the-beltway kind of overture of which I think there will be a lot more. That's his style. And it's a winning style."

Mr. Clinton's style was appreciated by Louise Odell, a retired social worker from Baltimore who said she found the meeting "fascinating" and was especially struck by the discussion of worldwide problems.

The Clinton supporter said she realized now that any economic improvement at home was limited by the international economy, a point George Bush persistently tried to convince voters of to no avail.

"The whole world is suffering," said Ms. Odell. "I think Clinton's moves are limited by the worldwide recession." If more Americans would watch the conference, she added, "perhaps they will not be so critical of what Clinton comes up with to help the economy. . . . There are problems all over the world."

Mr. Clinton even won over some of the highly skeptical during yesterday's session. Listener Ken Hunt, a laid-off toolmaker in Santa Ana, Calif., was initially angered by what he called "the quote-unquote experts who probably never worked a day in their life actually going out there and cranking handles."

So Mr. Hunt, a single parent of six children, called the 800 number, got through after about an hour and told the president-elect that "you can't kill your chickens and get more eggs," a reference to some economists' advice to both cut defense spending and create jobs.

In the end Mr. Hunt, a Republican who voted for Mr. Perot last month, said he was "pleasantly surprised" by yesterday's proceedings. "What I've seen here is more than I've seen in the last four years," Mr. Hunt said. "I applaud Clinton for at least trying, at least listening. Maybe he's on track."

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