A defect Gergen can't cure: President Clinton himself

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

June 02, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- When presidents get into political trouble, the inevitable result is a consensus in the White House that "we have to get our story out" -- meaning that the problem is communications rather than policy or, heaven forbid, the president himself.

This, of course, is precisely the thinking that has led President Clinton to appoint David Gergen, last seen in the Reagan administration, as a principal adviser. The message is that if the "communications" operation in the White House had been better, Clinton's approval rating with the electorate would not be at a record low level.

But Clinton is in political trouble because of his own performance, not that of George Stephanopoulos or Mack McLarty or anyone else on the staff. Although it may be argued that a shrewder staff might have saved the president from himself on some occasions -- someone could have objected to that haircut on the tarmac, for example -- Clinton himself has made the critical decisions.

That being the case, just what the White House can expect from Gergen is a mystery. As a former flack for three Republican presidents, he will be received with some caution, to put it most politely, by regular Democrats and liberals in particular. Nor does Gergen have some long-standing strong reputation within the press corps that assures him of any more credibility than any other administration tub-thumper.

There is no mystery about why Clinton's approval ratings have plummeted so dramatically. Much of it is, as the president himself argues, the inevitable result of his proposals for dramatic change and, more to the point, higher taxes. Any president with a program like his could expect resistance.

But Clinton has contributed to other perceptions of his presidency that reinforce the doubts. One is clearly that he is more liberal than he seemed to be running as a "different kind of Democrat" a year ago. It is hard to overstate the intensity of the polarization that has resulted from his aggressive move to reverse the ban on homosexuals in the armed services.

A second is the perception that the former governor of Arkansas is over his head in dealing with Congress and Washington in general. That notion grew mostly out of the mistakes that were made in trying to get his stimulus-jobs bill through the Senate earlier this spring. Clinton may have been victimized here by bad advice, but the decision to press ahead without any Republican backing was his own.

Clinton also is being dogged by the reversals he has been obliged to make on some key questions. During the campaign he criticized George Bush for being passive in the face of the chaos in Bosnia, and just last month he said the United States and its allies must act "quickly and decisively" to intervene. Now he has been forced to adopt a policy not unlike that followed by his predecessor.

Beyond this, the president has allowed the "Slick Willie" image to be reinforced by his own actions. That was the case, for example, when he seemed to distance himself originally from responsibility for both the tragedy at Waco and the controversy over the White House travel office.

And finally, Clinton has nourished the picture of the new administration as characterized by hubris and arrogance. That image is a product of relatively trivial issues -- the haircut, the summary dismissals and then misuse of the FBI in the travel office situation. But it is no less real.

The appointment of David Gergen is not going to wipe the slate clean on any of these things. Clinton is always going to be reminded of that haircut, just as he is reminded of his insistence a year ago that when he tried marijuana, he didn't inhale. But in the end, his success or failure as president will not rest on personal foibles but on judgments about his policies and ability to promulgate them effectively.

If he avoids further small gaffes, success will be far more important than those essentially trivial mistakes early in his stewardship.

But the key point is that it is Bill Clinton himself who must build an image of leadership and competence. Gergen may help at the margins, but the notion that this is largely a question of "communications" or the failures of his staff misses the point entirely.

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