Aide to Reagan, Bush helps Clinton deliver message


July 31, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Earlier this month David R. Gergen, counselor to the president, emerged from his basement office in the White House to go to the South Lawn, where President Clinton was making remarks about high technology.

Mr. Gergen wasn't exactly inconspicuous -- at 6 feet 5 inches that's difficult -- but he stood on the fringes of the crowd, little-noticed, chatting with old friends in the press corps while the president expounded on the marvels of futuristic technology.

This is not a subject Mr. Gergen knows anything about. Nor is it the reason he was there. But when the president's remarks shifted to his economic program, Mr. Gergen became instantly attentive.

Mr. Clinton told his audience that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan had testified to Congress the day before that interest rates were low because Wall Street had reacted positively to Mr. Clinton's plan -- even before it was enacted.

The Clintonites had been making this claim for months. But when the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board says it under oath, Dave Gergen thought the world ought to know about it. That morning, he had suggested inserting the Greenspan reference into the speech.

When he heard the president actually deliver it, Mr. Gergen smiled the satisfied smile of the backroom political adviser, of the deft editor or screenwriter whose lines actually remain in the script.

Mr. Gergen was asked to join the White House inner circle two months ago after Mr. Clinton had achieved the dubious distinction of seeing his approval rating fall further and faster than that of any new president in history, and for that reason, most of his fellow White House aides do not resent seeing that smile on Mr. Gergen's face. A few actually live for it.

"Let's face it, before he came we were rudderless," said one senior administration official. "He has supplied direction, experience and leadership."

Mr. Gergen has drawn on that experience to nudge the often easily riled president into using the weapon President Ronald Reagan regularly employed against the press -- self-deprecating humor.

In mid-June when Mr. Clinton cut short a press conference following his nomination of Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court and lashed out at ABC correspondent Brit Hume, it was Mr. Gergen who told him that afternoon in a staff meeting, "I think tomorrow you should go into the press room."

The next day, Mr. Clinton did precisely that, and the president called on Mr. Hume, who had recently returned to work after getting married. The president joked that he'd been angry at Mr. Hume "because you had a honeymoon and I didn't," while Mr. Gergen stood off to the side, arms folded, smiling that smile.

"Perfect," Mr. Gergen was overheard saying to White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers.

"He's huge here," says communications director Mark Gearan. "He's setting the tone, the pace and the agenda. It's really quite extraordinary."

Mr. Gergen's public response to such testimonials is to play them down.

"I've gotten far more credit than is appropriate," he said in an interview. Looking in the president's direction, Mr. Gergen added, "The most important difference is him."

Mr. Gergen has told old friends that he understands that in order for the good reviews to keep coming, he must remember to always be a team player and the president must perform well. As a result, Mr. Gergen has gone to great lengths to reassure Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty and top aide George Stephanopoulos that he is not a rival. He has also resisted the trappings of power, settling, in fact for a tiny White House basement office.

As far as the president's public standing is concerned, Mr. Gergen is doing all he can to help, sometimes in ways that aren't obvious. He has, for instance, tried to mend fences with independent presidential candidate Ross Perot, who was blasting Mr. Clinton regularly on television.

While taking a vacation just before he started work, Mr. Gergen had dinner with Mr. Perot in the Caribbean. When the president Nominated Judge Ginsburg, a Perot family friend, for the Supreme Court, Mr. Gergen telephoned the Texas billionaire to tell him before the announcement. Mr. Perot not only promised to help with the Ginsburg nomination but has also eased off his vitriolic personal criticism of the president.

Likewise, Mr. Gergen had a role in setting up a social dinner between the president and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, whose help will be needed to pass health care reform and other Clinton initiatives.

Mostly, he says, he is serving as a sounding board to help the president sell the nation on the need for a new economic direction.

"People talk about images, but it's the substance that drives this stuff," Mr. Gergen said. "If the president's economic package is passed, if the economy performs, by the end of this year people will see that he has indeed brought change."

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