Mr. Clinton's Astonishing Year

January 25, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

PARIS — Paris.--There was a certain patriotic pleasure in watching the president of the United States charm most of Europe. Bill Clinton has done less and worse on European issues than on any other policy area, but folks here seemed to love the guy.

That, of course, was the whole idea. Politics is institutionalized charm, and Mr. Clinton's life and career have been like a prom queen's rise to Miss America. There he is, walking on air; he is playing the saxophone; he is in the talent competition.

Symbolically it was a real triumph, a fitting end to an astonishingly successful first year in the White House. There was even irony in the superficiality of this European performance, a triumph of style over substance, for at home President Clinton's first year was a triumph of substance over style. He has not totally charmed the American people yet; people do not love him quite as much as they did on first impression. Or, perhaps, we are holding back our hearts because we do not really trust the guy. He is still slick, our Willie.

But Mr. Clinton has made a difference, even in the cool opinion of a magazine like The Economist in London, which does not love him a bit: ''An end-of-the-year report might award Mr. Clinton 10 out of 10 for effort and entertainment value, a good seven out of 10 for achievement, but only five out of 10 for inspiring confidence.''

Grudging praise, but since Mr. Clinton came on the American scene after almost a decade without much governing effort, those scores themselves are an achievement. The magazine concluded: ''Mr. Clinton has been doing one of the things he was elected to do: let fresh air into the stale atmosphere of political debate.''

That is not small praise. He seems to be what he said he would be in an awkward phrase: ''an agent of change.'' Government is a player again after the late Reagan-Bush years when the country persisted in confronting significant domestic problems with one hand (government) behind its back.

''The biggest change,'' said the Washington Post in its year-end review of the workings of life and power in the capital city, is ''Mr. Clinton's belief in government activism to address the nation's ills.''

So he has. It would have been hard to imagine on Inauguration Day a year ago that young Mr. Clinton would, a year later, have produced a deficit-reducing budget, shifted some of the tax burden of the country back onto the top 1 percent of earners rather than the middle class squeezed again and again during the Republican years, changed the debate over national health insurance from ''whether'' to ''how,'' outflanked the Republicans on law-and-order issues by embracing gun control, and pushed through approval of two significant international trade agreements, NAFTA and GATT.

To win congressional approval, the new president had to beg, borrow, steal, wine, dine and cajole -- giving members dinners, bridges, roads and hard cash to get the last few necessary votes. Whatever it took.

''Isn't that terrible?'' moaned the finger-waggers -- who knew full well that is exactly what successful presidents have always done to get what they considered necessary. And if he had not done those naughty things and NAFTA had failed, the president would have been laughed at by those same critics for being naive and ineffective.

The new president made more than his limit of bad or foolish appointments. The one he came to regret most was his attorney general, Janet Reno. I am cynical about such things, but I think presidents have to appoint their brothers or campaign managers as AGs -- because an attorney general is the only official with the power to bring down a president. To protect himself, the chief executive has to have total loyalty in that job.

Unfortunately, Mr. Clinton does not have that with Ms. Reno, a stranger. She is of the Elliot Richardson school of personal integrity; in a legal crisis she will not take a dive for Mr. Clinton. And Whitewater, the mess over missing checks, lousy property and suspicious political contributions back in Arkansas, may be such a crisis for this president. When anonymous White House sources say the president had nothing to do with the thing, his rTC wife handled the details, you can smell trouble coming.

But, so far, President Clinton's troubles have proved to be small, his mistakes forgettable, his political skills sometimes Rooseveltian -- and his record impressive. One of the reasons for the fervor of the Whitewater investigations is that he did so well last year. The president's political enemies are legion; the people who do not want this intensity of government activism are beginning to think they have to try to get him now. They have Washington nightmares of two terms for him and maybe even two after that for Al Gore, who has also been amazingly successful as vice president these 12 months.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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