With facts instead of whip, Clinton is taming the lion ON THE POLITICAL SCENE

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

April 24, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- In President Clinton's second formal news conference yesterday, he continued to demonstrate as he did in his first a solid knowledge and understanding of all issues raised. He went from Bosnia to his troubles with Congress and other subjects in between with nary a factual nor grammatical stumble.

This simple observation about his performance is itself a commentary on how little we have come to expect from our presidents and this particular format. Too often these news conferences have been seen essentially as exercises in evasion on the part of presidents and vehicles for showboating by reporters.

Too often, also, they have been regarded as pitfalls into which presidents have tripped over facts (Ronald Reagan) or syntax (George Bush), providing more fodder for late-night television comics than information for the electorate.

For this and similar reasons, presidents have moved away from the pattern of earlier chief executives, going back to Franklin D. Roosevelt, of almost weekly sessions with the press. Also, as more direct means have emerged for talking to voters, presidents have increasingly preferred them.

Bill Clinton in his first three months has been no exception. One obvious reason is the success he enjoyed in the 1992 campaign by going directly to the public, end-running news media that harassed him with questions of personal misconduct.

But Clinton's superior command of the spoken word and his obvious immersion in detail in the full range of issues facing him equip him well to tame a lion that has been very troublesome for most presidents since the days of John F. Kennedy, another young, confident president quick on his feet.

It is true that in neither of Clinton's first two formal news conferences has he had to deal with a major crisis of the sort in which misspeaking might produce severely damaging results. Not until he is in that position will his ability to handle the format be truly measured.

But just as he navigated questions about how to deal with beleaguered Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and opposition to gays in the military in his first news conference a month ago, Clinton made his way effortlessly yesterday through a diversity of subjects. They covered, beyond Bosnia and defeat of his economic stimulus package, new criticisms from Ross Perot and administration policies toward Haiti, Vietnam prisoners of war, the Tailhook inquiry and tomorrow's gay rights march, which (surprise!) he will miss.

Clinton's sure-footedness appears, so far at least, to have encouraged a degree of civility on the part of the reporters and analysts seated sedately in the East Room for what was, at 45 minutes, an unusually long presidential news conference. Part of that, however, may merely have been the absence of a crisis inspiring the customary jumping and screaming for recognition.

At the same time, a president who knows what he's talking about and knows how to express it can reduce the entertainment quality of the meetings with reporters. Clinton is hardly the barrel of laughs that Reagan often was with his deft one-liners -- which for some made up for his sometimes casual approach to the facts -- or Bush was with his malapropisms.

But there are many other sources of entertainment for voters. The prime justification for the news conference is the need to confront the president with informed questions about policies and events of the day, to elicit information about where the president is taking the country.

It remains for the president to decide what and how much he will convey. On Bosnia yesterday, Clinton declined to go beyond saying that the United States had an obligation to do something to stem the "ethnic cleansing" there and that further steps were being actively considered, with a decision imminent.

Notably, however, he assured the American people that this country would not send ground troops and would not act unilaterally. Furthermore, he pointedly observed that "heavy consultations will be required" with Congress "to embark on any new policy."

That is an attitude, too often resisted or rejected in the Reagan and Bush years, that should assuage public trepidation about precipitate foreign-policy actions. Putting the president on record in this regard, in fact, may be the best justification for the presidential news conference, and the best reason to hope Clinton holds them regularly.

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