Desire to please plus youthful staff adds up to errors


May 08, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, asked to justify his administration's actions outside Waco, Texas, told the nation that the Justice Department feared for the children inside because those as young as 3 had been taught how "to kill themselves."

It was a harrowing illustration of what had gone awry in David Koresh's compound.

It was also, apparently, a product of the president's imagination.

At the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents' Association May 1, Mr. Clinton needled his political nemesis, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, by saying the Kansas Republican had written a letter requesting that $23 million in federal funds go to converting a senior citizens center to a boathouse.

Actually, Mr. Dole had requested zero federal dollars for the project.

White House officials issued a grudging apology Monday, but the very next day they must have felt like zoo keepers armed with too-small brooms rushing around behind the circus elephants -- because Mr. Clinton struck again.

Speaking to a Democratic congressional dinner, Mr. Clinton lashed out at his Republican opponents in Congress once more. Insisting it was "time to tell the truth," he said, "The difference between us and the other side is we asked them for their spending cuts and we're still waiting."

This wasn't close to the truth, let alone the truth.

It was such a whopper, it fact, that it left Rep. John R. Kasich, an Ohio Republican, dumbfounded.

In March, Mr. Kasich and the other Republicans on the House Budget Committee had sent Mr. Clinton a line-by-line budget counterproposal that outlined $430 billion in spending cuts over the next five years.

Not only did the Republican effort receive much publicity, but Mr. Kasich has a letter, signed by the president, thanking the congressman for "sharing" a copy of his budget proposal.

Strictly speaking, it might not be news when a politician, even a president, fudges the truth, conveniently misremembers facts oreven tells an occasional outright lie.

Ronald Reagan cheerfully went public with all kinds of wrong information he'd committed to memory -- the source often turned out to be the movies -- and he could never seem to get it out of his head once he'd memorized it.

Mr. Reagan claimed that segregation in the armed forces ended when a black steward at Pearl Harbor grabbed a machine gun and blazed away at attacking Japanese planes.

Once, while chastising Democrats for poking fun at his most famous boner -- that plants and trees cause more air pollution than cars do -- Mr. Reagan compounded his error by insisting that the volcano in Mount St. Helens caused more pollution than all the cars in the world had caused in the preceding 10 years.

But Mr. Clinton's goofs seem to be of a different genre. For one thing, his whoppers always seem to come at someone else's expense. And lately, they've been coming so fast and furious, they almost beg for an explanation.

Is Mr. Clinton the victim of bad staff work? Is he just overworked and exhausted? Or is it just in his nature to prevaricate?

There seems to be evidence for all three.

Certainly, Mr. Clinton is tackling more issues than his two predecessors, and he's doing it in record time.

And just as obviously, there have been staff foul-ups. On Feb. 21, Mr. Clinton, speaking in Santa Monica, Calif., in a speech written by his staff, said: "We celebrated the Bicentennial of the Constitution in 1987, right? Guess what? There's still a Constitutional Commission [that] you're paying for."

As it turned out, the commission, headed by former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, had gone out of business on schedule -- and had returned $1.6 million to the U.S. Treasury.

When this cheap shot was pointed out to administration officials, White House communications director George Stephanopoulos said that the president had been "ill-staffed."

Part of the problem appears to spring from the youth of Mr. Clinton's White House staff. Mr. Stephanopoulos, for instance, is 32, and he oversees a staff of mostly younger aides.

Veteran White House hands from other administrations say the problem is not so much that men and women in their 20s and early 30s aren't up to snuff; it's that their hero worship of the boss makes them chary about telling him when he's full of baloney.

At the correspondents' dinner last weekend, for example, Mr. Clinton had instructed Mr. Stephanopoulos to check out the business of Senator Dole and the boathouse, which he wanted to add to his written remarks. Later, Mr. Stephanopoulos approached the president with a distracted look and warned him that the boathouse deal was "very complicated."

Mr. Stephanopoulos' description should have been a sufficient signal to Mr. Clinton to drop it from his remarks. But those who have worked in previous administrations also say it underscores the need in Mr. Clinton's White House for a rumpled, former journalist roughly his own age who can speak to the president in blunt and earthy language. In other words, a typical press secretary.

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