Clinton Can't Even Imagine What It Will Be Like


January 20, 1993|By WALTER F. MONDALE

Today Bill Clinton will go from being the governor of a Southern state to president and commander-in-chief of the world's only superpower. Unlike the pure celebration of election night, the inaugural ceremony is a unique mix of exhilaration and high purpose. From now on the whole world will listen to Bill Clinton's every word and watch his every move.

This year's inauguration is the first for a Democratic president since January 20, 1977. I remember well that afternoon, when the new president shocked everyone (including me) by walking down Pennsylvania Avenue from Capitol Hill to the White House. It symbolized President Carter's wish to return government to the people and avoid any hint of an imperial presidency.

Unfortunately, nothing fully prepares a person for the weight of responsibility he will carry in the White House. Shortly before taking office in 1977, I had lunch with a gray eminence in Washington who had advised presidents since Truman. He told me: ''You can't even imagine what it will be like.'' He was right.

Every new president is elected as the antidote to his predecessor -- and he is expected to be a miracle cure. For awhile, it seems almost possible. Even the toughest problems appear either solvable, deferable or avoidable.

The honeymoon soon ends, however, and the normal rules of politics take over. The president discovers that some of his key appointees fall short of the mark; that many of his friends are there only in fair weather; that the government often doesn't move to his command; that members of his own party in Congress are not always cooperative, and that the world is a complicated and dangerous place.

President Clinton is sure to face challenges that were not discussed, or even imagined, during the campaign. These are most likely to come in the area of foreign policy. Our enemies are waiting to test us, while our friends will try to pick our pockets.

The new president will also find out how hard it can be to translate campaign promises into the realities of deficit reduction, a middle-class tax cut, health-care reform, more jobs, better schools, new highways and a smaller military.

In fact, the presidency has become an increasingly brutal job where it is almost impossible not to get beaten down. Since Eisenhower, no president has left office either undefeated or completely unbroken. Even Ronald Reagan had lost his magic by the end.

lTC I saw President Carter start out as the miracle man from Plains, Georgia, with great hope and confidence. Then I watched as he was slowly ground down, leaving office four years later looking like he was a decade older. At the end, I stood beside a tense, dispirited and ashen man departing the White House without any of the self-confidence which had been his hallmark.

For the good of the country, it should not be this way. So, in the interests of presidential well-being, here are a few words of advice to President Clinton:

Obey the law. A president must never, ever abandon his oath of office to execute faithfully the laws of the land. The job is horribly frustrating and, at some point, every president is tempted to go outside the law, usually in foreign affairs. It is the romance with the trench coat. You will be told that you can achieve by covert and extra-legal means what cannot be done openly and legally. Don't do it.

Be on guard against the childishness factor among your key officials. Although this administration may be thick with Rhodes Scholars, brains do not guarantee maturity. As vice president, I watched grown men of great ability descend to the emotional level of second graders when they felt their turf or status was threatened. Unless top officials are mature and able to debate issues on merit, the administration will be ground up in petty disputes.

Don't try to micromanage the government. The president is a leader, not an engineer. There will be tremendous pressure to overextend yourself. You must concentrate on providing vision and direction for the nation. As president, you are the only person who can do it.

Trust the American people. They trusted you enough to elect you. Always explain what you are doing. If members of the public aren't buying your direction, don't question them; question your direction or your explanation. One of the saddest days in our administration was when some people tried to persuade President Carter that Americans were suffering from a malaise rather than an energy crisis. The administration elected on the platform that we needed a government as good as the people nearly argued that we instead needed a people as good as the government.

Make sure you don't get isolated in the White House. You should have friends in, see congressional opponents, go to a ballgame -- anything to stay in touch and keep your sanity. As President James Polk once advised: ''You are not God. You are an average American citizen who happens to occupy the presidency for a limited period of time.''

Although he is walking into a daunting set of problems, Bill Clinton is fortunate to have a public that has said it is ready for change; a Congress that seems prepared to work with him, and a top-notch group of people joining his team. We should wish him well. Our own future is at stake.

Walter F. Mondale, former vice president and a former U.S. senator from Minnesota, practices law in Minneapolis. He wrote this column for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.