Meeting lets president get closer to people ON POLITICS


WASHINGTON CO JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER — WASHINGTON -- One of the little conceits of Washington reporters is that only they are equipped to ask a president of the United States the right questions to force him to level with the American people. President Clinton's first experiment with a televised "town meeting" from suburban Detroit makes it clear that is a hollow claim.

Although there were some occasions when Clinton got away with vague generalizations, largely because the format didn't allow for full pursuit of the quarry, the questioners confronted him with all the issues that have been at the core of national debate since he took office three weeks ago -- taxes, Haiti, health insurance, Bosnia, trade, gun control and the appointment of an attorney general among them.

And Clinton displayed the same sure-footed ease in handling the questions that he had demonstrated when the same format was used during the presidential election campaign last year, most notably in the second debate at Richmond that was widely scored as the Democratic nominee's high point during the campaign. There were no gaffes that might have turned attention away from the substance of his answers to a sideshow.

It was a classic case of political symbiosis -- Clinton got his chance to show himself at his best, the voters got their chance to make their concerns clear to their president.

The significant thing about this first town meeting was less what Clinton said than simply the fact it was held. If there was one thing clear last year, from both opinion polls and the support for Ross Perot, it was that Americans feel increasingly frustrated by a government they consider haughty and isolated.

But the citizens who questioned Clinton from Detroit, Miami, Atlanta and Seattle obviously were a broad enough cross section of Americans so that any voter watching on television could feel he or she was represented and might well have performed the same function. Or, put another way, you don't have to be some smart-aleck reporter to get some answers.

The benefit to the White House went well beyond the opportunity for Clinton to show himself in his best light. Indeed, the most valuable part of the exercise may prove to be what the president and his advisers learned about the concerns of the voters. If there was a message in the questions, it was that many people have been paying close attention to Clinton's first three weeks in office and are not entirely enchanted by what they have seen. Tax increases obviously will be a hard sell. The plan to

allow gays in the military evokes some strong emotion. There is intense demand for improving the health-care system.

It is true, of course, that poll-takers can provide similar information to any White House. Clinton's campaign poll-taker Stan Greenberg has been kept on a retainer by the Democratic National Committee to provide just such data. These days all presidents of both parties keep a continuing polling capacity in place.

But poll figures and reports on focus groups, small gatherings of voters who are videotaped as they talk among themselves about political issues, are not the same as a televised town meeting in which the president himself participates. Simply by being there, the chief executive sends a message that he is willing to listen and willing to accept the risks that come with the format.

How often Clinton can use this technique over the next four years is a difficult question. There is the danger of the questioners becoming so practiced and prepared that some of the spontaneity and candor will be lost. If Clinton does it too often, he will be vulnerable to charges he is spending too much time on de facto campaigning for re-election when he should be minding the store.

But presidential leadership necessarily involves politics. If Clinton is going to succeed, he knows that he must build a national consensus for his plans. One of the key objectives in the first town meetings clearly was to prepare the electorate for some things they are not going to like in the economic program Clinton will unveil next week.

George Bush lost the presidency because the voters became convinced he had no understanding of their concerns, particularly on the economy, and little interest in them. The message in Bill Clinton's new gimmick is the direct opposite.

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