Sad State of the Presidency

June 06, 1993

The decline of President Clinton is reaching calamitous proportions. His mishandling of the Lani Guinier nomination is bound to raise more doubts about his competency, his character and his courage. This comes as a profound disappointment to millions of Americans who looked to him as a leader who could re-energize and reunite the country in this tumultuous final decade of the century.

Few can doubt Mr. Clinton is well-intentioned and eager to be liked and respected as he tries to measure up to the awesome dimensions of his job. But the impression grows that he is accident-prone, an unlucky general, a president with sloppy management habits who has appointed advisers who do not keep him out of trouble. Most of his difficulties have been self-inflicted or staff-inflicted. They have come with such regularity that his standing with the public has gone over the cliff. With his clout and prestige so diminished, his core programs are in serious jeopardy.

Yet at this low point in his presidency, Mr. Clinton has at least done the right thing in jettisoning a dear friend, Ms. Guinier, as his choice to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Had he read or had he been informed of ideas she presented in her academic writings, ideas he described as "undemocratic" and not representative of his views on civil rights, Mr. Clinton acknowledges he would not have made this divisive nomination.

In choosing to avoid a debilitating Senate debate over a nominee whose views he could not defend, Mr. Clinton knew he would be taunted as a weakling and a betrayer by some of his closest political allies. Nevertheless, a president has to maintain a wider perspective than the furor of the moment. And in Mr. Clinton's perspective, he must attract support from the political center as well as the political left if he is to have any hope of getting his economic and social reforms through Congress.

The Congressional Black Caucus, headed by a respected Baltimorean, Rep. Kweisi Mfume, is threatening to withdraw its support from President Clinton for his refusal to allow Ms. Guinier a Senate confirmation hearing. This would be a counter-productive to the African-American agenda, a move that would please only Republican conservatives intent on wrecking this administration whatever the cost. Ms. Guinier, despite her deep disappointment, said she still respected the president and was ready to support him.

This surely is the best way, the only way, out of this mess. The progressive mainstream forces still capable of rallying around Mr. Clinton have much to do. Only five months of his 48-month term have gone by. Just as Janet Reno proved to be a better choice for attorney general than Zoe Baird or Kimba Wood, so Mr. Clinton may -- indeed must -- come up with a new civil rights chief who will be better positioned to help heal the nation's racial wounds than Ms. Guinier. It would be one small step in the massive task of pulling this administration together for the good of the country.

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