The Mandarins, Stupid

RICHARD REEVES

February 05, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

New York. -- The 42nd president of the United States had an upsetting beginning. He settled into the nation's big chair, then leaned back with his feet up -- and tipped the darned thing right over. It happens to the best of them; no one knows how to be president or knows of a retraining program for that job.

The republic for which he stands is not going to collapse under the weight of gays in the Army, and it could have survived an attorney general who cut a few corners on her way to the top. Neither of those things is new -- well, the ''her'' part is new, and maybe that's what was most important about the Zoe show.

It was misunderstanding the post-television Congress that got the men in the White House in a little trouble these past few days. I know the president's men are blaming his recent embarrassments on the dread ''media,'' but the problem was not suddenly assertive reporters.

The trouble was offended senators, angry because this president was not paying them sufficient court, senators who raced to the newspapers and television cameras to say in public what they would have said in private if only Charming Billy had called them.

The new man did not clear his ideas about the military with Sen. Sam Nunn, and that Southerner, no gentleman this time, was on camera waving what was called ''the bloody shirt'' after the Civil War, when Union veterans disparaged the patriotism of everyone but their comrades-in-arms.

And the White House, through Under Secretary of the Treasury Roger Altman, dared mention that a lot of public money might be saved by taking a hard look at Social Security without clearing that thought with Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Sen. Jim Sasser, prompting Mr. Moynihan to say his party's nominal leader had a ''death wish'' and Mr. Sasser to say, ''Forget it!''

It's more than likely that the former governor of a small state made his mistake in believing that his three fellow Democrats were blood brothers representing much larger states, Georgia for Senator Nunn, New York for Senator Moynihan and Tennessee for Senator Sasser.

That, unfortunately for President Clinton, is not the way it works anymore. Those three committee chairmen, and a majority of the other 532 members of Congress, no longer represent the people of a geographic area. They represent pieces of television territory, issue areas -- or even ideas, if you wish. Mr. Nunn is the senator from ''Defense,'' Mr. Moynihan from ''Social Security'' and a few other intellectual venues, Mr. Sasser from ''the Budget.''

xTC You can get the picture of how it works now, literally, by turning on ''The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour'' or ''Nightline.'' Television is interested in familiar expertise and balanced opinion, but that balance has nothing to do with geography and little to do with partisan politics, either. If you want to hear a real Democrat, you have to wait until Mark Shields comes on with a real Republican, David Gergen.

The competition among lesser members of Congress is also no longer partisan or regional. It is a game of finding one's issue -- anything from Afghanistan to Zaire will do -- and respecting the issue turf of colleagues who have already staked out their own areas, from free trade to fair trade.

I don't think the new president got that. He thought he would find Democrats and Republicans, Northerners and Southerners in the Capitol, but what is actually inside that building are 100 quasi-presidents in the Senate and 435 mini-presidents in the House of Representatives -- all of them served by staffs as big as real presidents had only 30 years ago.

President Clinton, I suspect, will learn to live with all those pretenders very soon. He is a quick and resilient study, with a longer attention span that most politicians. But he has to live with them at the same time as he calculates how to use them or learns to cruise through them. He was elected to change things the Congress does not want changed or does not have the guts to try to change -- and let's hope that determination to change will come across when he restarts his presidency in two weeks.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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