Clinton's New Spin Doctor

June 03, 1993

For those who like humor with their politics, the appointment of David Gergen as chief spin-doctor in the Clinton White House adds an intriguing character to the national sit-com. Mr. Gergen served three Republican presidents -- Nixon, Ford and Reagan -- before making the jump to U.S News and World Report and frequent talking head on TV news shows. Now the revolving door has spun again, and he is back at the White House.

Having earlier advised the reading and listening public that President Clinton is "going around in circles" and needs to show some "toughness," Mr. Gergen is already finding sterling qualities in his new boss. Mr. Clinton, we now are told, "has a lot going for him: He's accomplished a lot. He's had good, strong leadership here." Oh?

Neither depiction of the president -- neither the dross nor the gilt -- is entirely accurate. Accuracy, however, is not the chief line of work of those who peddle partisan commentary on the tube or of political public-relations specialists. That they are becoming more and more interchangeable as key figures in the Washington glamour scene is one of the more depressing developments of the day.

Now that David is to appear in the Clinton sit-com, what will happen to George? And to Dee Dee? And to good ole Mack McLarty, so-called chief of staff? And to all the assorted adults and proto-adults who have turned running the country into a form of inter-generational warfare? Stay tuned.

Say this for David Gergen: He is not new to this sort of thing. As Reagan "communications director," he and press spokesman Larry Speakes were at dagger points. The latter tells us in his memoirs that he taunted Mr. Gergen as "The Tall Man" and had the lectern at press briefings set at its lowest level so the towering Mr. Gergen would look like a "giraffe." Childishness obviously did not originate with the Clinton White House.

More important, however, Mr. Gergen brings into a Democratic administration a history of having helped sell the country on Reaganomics -- lies, deceptions and all. David Stockman's memoirs depict him as a loyalist willing to trot out budget numbers he knew didn't add up. Since few of Candidate Clinton's promises have survived four months into the Clinton presidency, perhaps Mr. Gergen has learned enough to insist on a more creditable performance this time out.

To the extent he can push the left-lurching Clinton program to the center, Mr. Gergen's presence will be an asset. To the extent he can impose some discipline on a chaotic White House operation, the nation will be well served. The president is in a free fall (only 36 percent approval) that calls for dramatic measures. But there is an underlay of cynicism and tinsel in the Gergen scenario that should make the public and the print press wary indeed.

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