President Friendly Will Clinton's Style Work in White House?

January 17, 1993|By GILBERT A. LEWTHWAITE

WASHINGTON — Washington.--Meet the real Bill Clinton, the one Hallie Simmins knows. He probably doesn't know her, but she has met him enough times to regard him as a friend. A lot of people regard Mr. Clinton as a friend. Indeed, he might be the friendliest president of them all.

The simple fact is that the man who will become 42nd president of the United States this week genuinely likes people. He likes them in couples, in crowds, in conferences, at conventions and in congregations. He just can't get enough of them. He is a flesh-presser by personal instinct rather than political necessity. It explains his perpetual lateness: he dallies.

He is never happier than when meeting or mingling. Hallie Simmins, who works for the Little Rock convention bureau, recalls that whenever he attended a function in the convention center he would call in at the visitors' information bureau simply to say "hello" to the workers.

"He is our favorite son. Almost everybody has met him," says Ms. Simmins.

You have only to see him working a crowd to realize he is a genuine populist. Here he is in the corridor of Little Rock's Central High, shaking hands, pausing, paying attention to what people are telling him, clearly enjoying the personal exchange. There he is, taking his final, sad leave of fellow worshipers at the Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, thanking them for their spiritual support over the years.

Now he is on his way by bus to Washington, the sort of street-level, getting-to-know-you caravan he chose to launch his campaign after his nomination. There is a cartoon press credential for the trip showing a careening bus under the words: "Inauguration 93 -- The Bus Stops Here." Mr. Clinton saw a photographer wearing one the other day and asked for a copy, obviously pleased with the amusingly reassuring imagery.

The simple fact is that he comes from a small state where most people know each other and just about everybody knows Bill Clinton. The new administration may yet be known as the Clinton Connection.

Which leads to the key question: How will a guy who likes being so popular adapt to the inevitable loneliness of being the most powerful man on earth? Put another way: Can so gregarious a politician find satisfaction in the protective bubble that is the White House?

Mr. Clinton arrives in Washington this week, like Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan before him, basically an outsider. His power network spans local and regional politics, rather than national and international. His friends have been gathered at school in Arkansas, at college here and abroad, and from the mayors and governors who have shared his bitter-sweet experience of local power in an era of federal restraint.

Now he comes to the capital, to tackle the problems of a troubled nation and a dangerous world, an awesome challenge for one with such limited experience.

William Jefferson Clinton is the product of political insurgency, a candidate who played improbable odds, overcame daunting difficulties, faced down special interests and saw off a once apparently unbeatable incumbent -- all on the timely promise of a renewed American dream under a new generation of leadership.

His operating style is to seek consensus. It goes back to a basic desire for approval, which has been attributed to his abusive childhood, and a natural tendency to listen. Anyone who watched him chair his economic summit in Little Rock last month has to acknowledge that he has an attention span more impressive than the Bay Bridge.

He is a policy wonk, a detail man who thrives on minutiae as he prepares himself to make the big decision. Interestingly, he has created a National Economic Council, to do for the economy what the National Security Council has long done for foreign policy -- co-ordinate, conciliate and reach consensus between the various departments and agencies involved. It is a striking innovation that reflects his political modus operandi.

In one interview during the campaign, he said: "I have . . . been a governor, not a member of Congress, so that I have shown the ability to stand up to and contend with the entrenched forces, to make tough budget decisions and to bring people together in new and nonconventional partnerships to make progress."

He has his own deep-rooted nonconventional side. How many other presidential hopefuls would appear on "60 Minutes" to answer questions about marital fidelity, would play the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show or would spread the message between the hard rock videos of MTV, the teen-age music channel?

In his youth, like millions of other Americans, he opposed the Vietnam war. He took a break from his Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford to go to Moscow, and he took a puff of a marijuana joint, all actions which would come back to haunt him during the campaign and throw his patriotism and reliability into question.

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