To lead is to learn, Clinton finds THE FIRST 100 DAYS

April 25, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,STAFF GRAPHICWashington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Even before winning the presidency, Bill Clinton and his trusted aides shared a single, burning obsession: They wanted to strike with blinding speed during the first 100 days.

As they envisioned it, William Jefferson Clinton's successes would stack up, one upon the other, so quickly that fellow Democrats would see him as their unquestioned leader, congressional Republicans would be afraid topoke their heads above ground and American voters would forget that fewer than half of them voted for him to be the nation's 42nd president.

Patterning himself after Franklin D. Roosevelt, the most successful Democrat ever, Mr. Clinton even made his bold hopes public.

"I know I can pass a sweeping package of legislation during the first 100 days of my administration," Mr. Clinton said last summer. "It will be the most productive period in modern history."

As a candidate, Mr. Clinton pledged economic assistance to Russia, to restore democracy to Haiti and to use U.S. military power to end "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia. At home, he vowed to cut taxes on the middle class, defend abortion rights, lift the ban on gays in the military, streamline government, send every American student to college who wants to go, put 100,000 more police officers on the nation's streets -- and revamp America's entire system of delivering health care.

It was an agenda of breathtaking ambition, and certainly a snap shot taken only 100 days into the Clinton White House cannot provide a real picture of how successful he will be.

But Mr. Clinton, eager to have some input into the assessments of his first three months, insisted Friday: "In this hundred days, we have already fundamentally changed the direction of an American government."

Clearly, Mr. Clinton has fulfilled some promises while ignoring others. Some pledges, he has learned, are not as simple to accomplish as they seemed.

"It's easy in the campaign to say, 'Why don't these idiots do something about Bosnia,' " one senior administration official said. "But when you get here almost everything is more complicated than it looks -- especially on foreign policy -- and you've got to spend so much time on incoming flak."

In their zeal to hit the ground running, top Clinton administration aides not only kept to a breakneck campaignlike schedule during the transition period, but they made a point of being briefed by numerous officials of previous administrations.

"They kept saying the same thing," recalled Deputy Chief of Staff Mark Gearan. "They kept saying that nothing -- absolutely nothing -- you've ever done in your lives can prepare you for the White House."

Almost 100 days into the Clinton administration, this advice has hit home for everyone, even Mr. Clinton, who had dreamed of living in the White House as a teen-ager, thought carefully about how he would wield power there and obviously relished the trappings of the office.

"He loves being president," says George Stephanopoulos, White House communications director.

Inside the White House

Mr. Clinton had his college roommates up to his second-floor residences, recalled Baltimore novelist Thomas Caplan, and showed them how Thomas Jefferson's statue appears to be looking in at the president as he does his work.

But sometimes, especially late at night, the impact of the job hits him.

Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers recalls being in the Oval Office with a group of aides one night:

"George was there, and couple of others. Clinton was wearing a sweater . . . and he was telling us some history of the place," she recalled. "Then he folded his arms, and kind of shook his head, his eyes welled up -- and so did ours -- and he said, 'Can you believe this?' "

Then, last week, came the Week from Hell.

On Monday, the FBI stormed a cult compound with tanks, a decision that resulted in the burning deaths of an estimated 80 people, many of them children. Mr. Clinton, it turned out, had been briefed on the operation in advance.

Two days later, a $16.3 billion jobs bill that he had lobbied for strenuously for three weeks was killed by unconvinced Senate Republicans.

In remarks to the University of Maine hockey team on Wednesday, the president ruefully compared himself with a hockey player -- or maybe it was a hockey puck -- saying, "After spending three months getting banged around in this town, I can understand a little more about hockey than I did."

Adds Mr. Stephanopoulos, the aide on whom the president relies perhaps more than any other: "Obviously, we've learned a lot. Governing is different than campaigning. When the whole world is not paying attention to what you want it to, you can't just change the subject. You have to deal with it."

The Branch Davidians did not wait until the August recess to shoot and kill four agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The Russian Parliament did not wait until Mr. Clinton's stimulus bill was safe to try and boot President Boris N. Yeltsin out of office, either.

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