Clinton: Great Communicator or Windy Politician?

October 31, 1993|By CARL M. CANNON

Washington -- The unveiling of new monument always requires a president to say a few words, but the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum here was an occasion that demanded profound eloquence. And President Clinton rose to the challenge.

"The Holocaust began when the most civilized country of its day unleashed unprecedented acts of cruelty and hatred," said Mr. Clinton as he stood in a cold April rain. "A culture which produced Goethe, Schiller and Beethoven, then brought forth Hitler and Himmler. The Holocaust reminds us forever that knowledge divorced from values can only serve to deepen the human nightmare; that a head without a heart is not humanity."

This month, in Chapel Hill, N.C., however, this same man tossed away his prepared text during a speech hyped by advisers as a "major address" and went on a rambling discourse about crime, gun control -- and nearly everything else.

"We also -- and I say this in North Carolina, coming from a state where in my home state, half the people have a hunting license or a fishing license or both and we have to shut down factories and schools and towns on the opening day of deer season because nobody shows up anyway -- but we still ought to pass the Brady bill so we don't sell guns to people with a criminal or a mental health history," he said.

This autumn, as Mr. Clinton tries put his stamp on foreign affairs, win the approval of the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and sell the country on his ambitious plan to restructure the health care system, his success depends largely on his ability to communicate a grand vision of what he wants the world to look like.

The Oval Office, it is often said, is the world's most powerful "bully pulpit." But it is still up to the president to impart to the nation the wisdom of his causes and the sincerity of his convictions.

So how do Mr. Clinton's abilities stack up? Is he the gifted and natural public speaker his staff believes him to be? Is he the true wearer of the mantle of "The Great Communicator," a title once bestowed on Ronald Reagan?.

Or is he, as Mr. Clinton's critics suggest, just another windy Southern politician with a knack for gab -- but one who spins long, complex sentences, and babbles on in mind-numbing detail without ever hitting the historic high notes that define a successful president?

"Jimmy Carter was not very good at the set-piece speech, but was quite good at the give-and-take of a press conference, while Reagan was the opposite," recalls Jody Powell, press secretary during the Carter administration. "Frankly, Clinton has always seemed pretty damned good at both."

"Imagine, here's a guy who finishes his sentences," adds California political pollster Mervin Field, in a dig at the notoriously inarticulate George Bush.

But history cautions that a truly successful president must do more than simply put words together in a coherent fashion.

"He's very glib, he's intelligent, he's a very good communicator in terms of being able to articulate his thoughts," Republican Edward J. Rollins, Mr. Reagan's 1984 campaign manager, says of Mr. Clinton. "But he's not a great presidential communicator because he doesn't inspire you to do things. I'm partisan, but when I see him in the Oval Office making a speech, you don't feel that patriotic tug like you did with Roosevelt or Reagan."

Mr. Clinton's own top aides often find him a bit wordy. They also concede privately that he can be flat as a public speaker, especially if called upon early in the day.

"Noooo -- he's not what you would call a morning person," one aide said.

But they also believe that he is unparalleled when he uses the presidential pulpit to educate the American people on a subject he knows well. They cite his address in January to launch his economic plan and his health reform speech to a joint session of Congress last month as examples.

William Miller, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia, agrees, comparing Mr. Clinton favorably to James Madison "for his mastery of detail." During his "economic summit" in Little Rock, Ark., last year, Mr. Clinton put on a show that no modern president, including John F. Kennedy, could have matched, Mr. Miller said.

But Mr. Miller also believes that Mr. Clinton talks too much and lacks the grace, cutting wit and, most of all, the succinct responses John F. Kennedy demonstrated during his press conferences.

"He doesn't have that aesthetic sense that what you leave out is as important as what you leave in," says Mr. Miller.

Even more important, he says, the president must set the nation's agenda and help shape the way Americans see themselves. "He doesn't coin these penetrating phrases, formulate images to make us see things in a different way," says Mr. Miller. "He doesn't have the gift for memorable figures of speech -- and doesn't have a literary sense."

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