Buried in a one-week avalanche, can Clinton come up for air?

Sandy Grady

January 29, 1993|By Sandy Grady

NOW we'll find out how smart he really is.

There once were fancy rhapsodies -- some written here -- about Bill Clinton's political deftness, the way he connects with people, his savvy on issues.

Watching him campaign, I thought he was one of the best natural politicians I'd ever seen. Even now, a CNN poll shows 72 percent like Mr. Clinton for his "intelligence."

OK, if he's so bright, how'd the president stumble immediately into so many bear traps? Is he already crippled? Can he dig himself out of the hole?

From the class furor over Zoe Baird's illegal nanny to the bitter tumult over military gays -- well, even White House partisans admit this was The Week From Hell.

As one harassed Clinton staffer wailed, "We need an owner's manual in the glove compartment here."

Inaugural hype and saxophone hoopla faded into blues. What happened to candidate Clinton's rosy talk of a middle-class tax cut and a deficit sliced in half? Where were the economic, energy and health plans that would be ready on day one? This was brilliance?

Mr. Clinton was doing a good imitation of Chevy Chase imitating Jerry Ford windmilling down a flight of stairs.

Voters, instructed by Ross Perot and Mr. Clinton that it was their government, reacted. They hit the phones. Washington switchboards went into meltdown -- 264,000 calls daily to a Capitol that averages 84,000.

The Pentagon got more calls than during the gulf war.

You can bet most callers weren't Friends of Bill.

"He [Mr. Clinton] is using up his capital. The honeymoon's ending in a quick divorce," said Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Tex., a '96 Republican hopeful. "I don't remember a president getting off to a worse start."

That's a stretch. Other presidents had early bobbles. Jack Kennedy began with the Bay of Pigs. George Bush walked into an ugly fight over his defense appointee, John Tower.

But how did Bill Clinton, maestro of mainstream politics and king of the wonks, limp ineptly out of the starting gate? Three guesses:

* A green, overloaded staff: Mr. Clinton refreshingly said he took "personal responsibility" for blowing the Zoe Baird appointment. He confessed it was done too hurriedly. But when Clinton staffers didn't ring alarm bells that a $550,000-a-year lawyer had hired illegal aliens, they were tone deaf.

* Doing the easy stuff fast: Mr. Clinton knew it would take time, maybe 30 days, to develop an economic scheme.

He needed quick hits -- lifting the abortion gag rule, passing a family leave bill, lifting the military ban on gays. Trying to deliver on a campaign vow to gays (who gave $5 million to his campaign), he stumbled into a buzz-saw.

* Rookie hubris: Mr. Clinton figured he could end-around the Chiefs of Staff on the gay ban. He totally misread the public's cultural storm and the muscle of congressional lions.

He was guilty of George Bush's mistake: trying to bully Sam Nunn.

Is Bill Clinton seriously damaged? I doubt it. He has a reservoir of good will. His temperament is solid. He seems to enjoy the mess he's created. Grinning, he told reporters, "It's distracting you; it's not distracting me." But he must show fast footwork.

First, Mr. Clinton has to finesse the angry bedlam over lifting the ban on military gays. That will take tricky political jujitsu.

A showdown with Congress would embitter Democrats whose help he'll need. Better for Mr. Clinton to cool the issue six months; he could keep his moral stance while Senator Nunn lets the military vent steam.

Second, Mr. Clinton should refocus the laser on the economy. (The sign in his campaign headquarters didn't say, "It's Gays, Stupid.") Layoffs at IBM and other U.S. giants have the country nervous again. Mr. Clinton's plan won't be unveiled until his State of the Union speech. But he can't wait until Feb. 17 to quell the jitters.

No accident that Labor Secretary Robert Reich was on the talk shows, yakking about a "$15- to $25-billion" stimulus package -- anything to divert attention from the gay fury. Maybe Mr. Clinton could hold public forums to lay out economic options. You know, electronic town halls.

Get under the hood, right, Ross?

Sure, Clinton loyalists like ex-campaign aide Paul Begala say airily, "The Constitution gives him four years, not one week. This will all blow over."

But the next weeks will be a test of Mr. Clinton's fabled skill at connecting with people's concerns, not sideshow fluff. And his Houdini nimbleness at extracting himself from crises.

After all, one year ago -- Jan. 27, 1992 -- Gennifer Flowers held a press conference to proclaim Bill had been her loveboat. Hey, any politician who could survive Gennifer's blast should have a breeze shaking off Zoe Baird and homophobic generals.

What we need is the Bill Clinton of those dark days -- a guy who took a hard punch and came up swinging, a performer who could switch the tune from scandal to deeper issues, a politician who could change the music to people's real cares.

If he's got the political genius some of us glimpsed, now's the time for President Clinton to flaunt it.

Come back, Slick Willie.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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