Why Clinton Had Such a Rocky Year

January 02, 1994|By KEVIN PHILLIPS

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- It was deceiving to insist, as Hillary Rodham Clinton did recently, that in December the Clinton presidency was back in its stride and on top of the national polls -- if just beyond midfield, at 54 percent according to Gallup, can be called on top. And whenever Bill Clinton gets himself up, alas, it's not too long before another weakness appears.

For almost a year now, he has been plagued by a succession of five alternating problems -- basic inexperience, poor economic management, "Dogpatch" ethics, lack of foreign policy skill and excessive coziness with interest groups.

Back in the spring, when he was still purporting to attack special interests, he was whipsawed by the other four weaknesses.

Early this autumn, inept foreign policy provided the nasty surprise -- when the administration's fumbles in Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia wiped out Mr. Clinton's late-September poll gains from his health reform proposal.

Last month, the economy was finally getting better, boosting his ratings from the mid-40s to the mid-50s. Then along comes another furor over Mr. Clinton's ethical standards -- or lack of them.

Is there anyone who still doesn't know about the Arkansas state policemen who have thrown the White House into a tizzy with their charges of Mr. Clinton's sexcapades? And who doesn't know that the president and his wife have both attacked the charges as "outrageous" without definitively saying they are untrue? Never before have the policemen who protected a president in his previous governmental position come forward to call him morally unfit.

Then there are the documents on the first couple's dealings with Whitewater Corp. and the Madison Guarantee Savings and Loan -- the famous papers that Clinton aides removed from the office of Vincent W. Foster Jr., the White House deputy counsel who committed suicide this summer. The Clintons have given up their early intention to keep these papers locked up under lawyer-client privilege. Now they're releasing them to the Justice Department, but Republicans, whose demand for a special prosecutor has been rejected, charge that the White House may be using Justice as a shield to deny public access to information that may be embarrassing to the president.

All this we know. But what we don't know may be more important.

We don't know if the national press will pursue and develop allegations against a Democratic president as vigorously as they have against several Republican presidents. We don't know whether Congress will stonewall to protect Mr. Clinton the way congressional Democrats did 30 years ago rather than investigate Lyndon B. Johnson. We don't know whether a Democratic Justice Department -- one in which Arkansas Clinton appointees sit in key positions -- can be counted on to deal at arm's length with a Democratic White House.

And most of all, we don't know whether we're at the beginning of another Watergate, including a White House cover-up -- or just halfway through an unpleasant mess that will hurt the Clintons for a while but then blow away with no lasting damage.

PTC The allegation of "Dogpatch" ethics invokes, of course, cartoonist Al Capp's mythical Dixie upcountry playground of bubbas, boobs and babes, where the shortest line between two financial institutions is invariably crooked and the public servants are the best that money can buy.

The Texas White House of Johnson earlier fit some of the stereotype. So did the Georgia White House of Jimmy Carter -- despite Mr. Carter's personal integrity -- because of the presence of such good ol' boys as country banker-turned-U.S. budget director Bert Lance and the president's beer-drinking brother, Billy.

The trouble with the Arkansas White House of Clinton is that it fits just about every stereotype and then some: hometown lawyers high-hogging it at the Justice Department; a presidential brother once busted for cocaine use who's now trying to break into show business; the former president of Arkansas-Louisiana Gas playing chief of staff; a bottle-blonde from back home shopping a book about her life as the president's 12-year paramour; the emergence of two possible half-siblings Mr. Clinton never knew existed; tricky presidential land deals with a fast-buck S&L operator; and a deputy White House counsel from Little Rock who commits suicide under the strain.

Voters have a right to be nervous. Back in 1992, Mr. Clinton's win broke the usual set of rules. He was elected president the first time he tried -- only the second instance of that happening in 30 years. (The first occasion, Mr. Carter's regime, should have been enough warning.)

Mr. Clinton also won without winning his party's New Hampshire primary -- another rarity and caution. He was also the first president since Franklin Pierce, in 1852, to be elected from one of the country's smallest states.

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