Clinton after Waco

April 21, 1993

At the precise point in his presidency when John F. Kennedy was clobbered by the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Bill Clinton finds himself under siege because of the cult catastrophe in Waco. Despite the vast differences between the two events -- one a failed attempt to overthrow a foreign government, the other a botched effort to deal with a religious fanatic -- there are also similarities that raise questions about presidential leadership.

In both cases, these presidents accepted Cabinet and intelligence agency advice that proved disastrously wrong. In both cases, they did not exert operational control or question assumptions that were challenged beforehand.

A sobered Jack Kennedy emerged from his ordeal to recover stature in the Cuba missile crisis, the civil rights struggle and his arms control initiatives with Moscow. Whether Mr. Clinton can recapture that Inauguration Day sense of good things waiting to happen will depend on developments far removed from the tragedy in Texas.

So far, the omens are not encouraging. After an initial success in pushing budget resolutions through Congress, Mr. Clinton has run into a roadblock in the Senate over a stimulus-jobs bill that shrinks in economic importance as its political implications escalate. His vow to bring about health care reform is now giving rise to fears of national sales taxes atop the present income tax structure.

In foreign affairs, he is stymied in Bosnia and Haiti. His vast gamble on the survival of Russian President Boris Yeltsin awaits Sunday's voting. The outlook for progress on trade issues is decidedly cloudy. Ethnic wars and regional nuclear threats escalate even as Mr. Clinton attempts to downsize the armed forces.

Thus, the Waco setback comes at a bad time for the new president. His overly protective White House staff did not help by seeking to distance Mr. Clinton from what all the nation was watching Monday, nor did he help himself when he failed to make clear from the beginning that the buck stops with him, not with Attorney General Janet Reno.

It is not our purpose to rush to judgment on the wisdom of the rescue operation in Texas. The administration is widely accused of having miscalculated in discounting the chances of a mass suicide, in not preparing a back-up rescue team to relieve weary FBI agents on the scene, in not having adequate firefighting equipment on hand and in not waiting out David Koresh and his followers.

But it is always easy to second-guess a blunder. What is less easy is an unflinching investigation of what went wrong and, even more, an examination of how government should deal with non-conformists ready to take up arms and put hostages at risk to defy legal authority. Just as Mr. Kennedy refurbished his reputation three decades ago, Mr. Clinton has opportunity a-plenty to become the president he wants to be. But his task will be harder than before. He will need to show his judgment is sound and his character resolute if he is to succeed.

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