Still the 'Comeback Kid'?

August 29, 1994|By TRB

You knew impressions of Bill Clinton were hardening when Michael Kelly's long-awaited New York Times Magazine cover story on the president appeared in late July. Prior to Mr. Kelly's piece, the conventional wisdom held that Mr. Clinton caves to pressure, reneges on promises and is unable to tell the whole truth.

But Mr. Kelly's exhaustive reporting showed . . . well, that Mr. Clinton reneges on promises and doesn't tell the whole truth.

Two weeks later, ''Nightline'' interviewed people who had voted for Mr. Clinton. They called him ''weak,'' a ''wimp'' and a ''pathetic little thing.'' You almost expect to see Strobe Talbott on ''Charlie Rose'' confessing that he's distrusted Mr. Clinton ever since meeting him at Oxford.

It wasn't until three years into Jimmy Carter's term that a critique of his character gained such wide acceptance that it seemed to render further psychoanalysis unnecessary. Mr. Clinton has reached that point in two years.

Now come the desperate ''comeback'' scenarios. The difference that Mr. Clinton, unlike Mr. Carter, still has time to come back. How?

It's silly to search for a magic bullet that will restore the president's popularity. He already has one, or something close to it: welfare reform. Whenever Mr. Clinton has been in trouble in the recent past, he's started talking about his promise to ''end welfare as we know it'' by imposing a two-year limit on cash aid.

Unlike Mr. Clinton's health care plan, his welfare plan is wildly popular. It attracted 90 percent approval in one recent poll. By pushing it through to passage, he could remind the voters he's no old-style liberal. Perhaps more important, he would show he's no pushover for Democrats who are old-style liberals.

If I were a Democratic congressman, I'd certainly want to vote for welfare reform before November. But even if the president suddenly punted on health reform and shifted to welfare, there probably wouldn't be enough time to pass a welfare bill this year.

That's bad for congressional Democrats, who now will likely face mid-term elections with neither health care nor welfare reform to brag about. But it's not necessarily bad for Mr. Clinton.

In the next Congress, House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt won't be able to argue -- as he did, inanely, on the crime bill -- that the president should water down his proposal in order to pass it without Republican votes. There won't be enough Democrats left to pass anything without Republican votes. Mr. Clinton will have to govern from the center.

So much for substance. What about character? All the bipartisanship in the world won't erase the doubts about Mr. Clinton himself. At the equivalent moment in Mr. Carter's term, Charles Peters of the Washington Monthly wrote that ''What we need, Mr. President, . . . is for you to get down on your knees and admit you have sinned.''

That would be nice. At the very least, Mr. Clinton could drop the sort of obvious self-pity -- blaming Rush Limbaugh, blaming the ''confusion'' of voters in ''a time of change'' -- that avoids the need even for introspection.

It is not good news to learn that the president is enamored of the book ''Out of Order'' by Syracuse University professor Thomas Patterson.

Mr. Patterson argues that Mr. Clinton's presidency has been a historic triumph but that he is put upon by a lazy, cynical press. Even if Mr. Patterson is right, whining about it won't help Mr.

Clinton with either the voters or the press.

It's true that journalists have changed in the ways Mr. Patterson describes. They used to just report the facts. Now they feel they have to add ''analysis.'' Lose a big vote in Congress, and R. W. ''Johnny'' Apple will be there on the front page of the New York Times the next morning, beating his tom-toms of doom.

It's also true that often the press' ''analysis'' is superficial and cynical. No correspondent is going to describe, with a straight face, a politician saying that his ''crime bill must belong to the American people.''

But this cynical trend has been obvious in journalism and the larger culture for a couple of decades now. Like TV or the global economy, it isn't going away. A modern politician like Mr. Clinton -- and certainly a hip, young aide like George Stephanopoulos -- is supposed to recognize and adapt to this change, not moan about it like a dinosaur trapped in a tar pit.

How might a politician appeal to journalists who, inevitably, put their ''spin'' on the news? Not, it turns out, by ''spinning'' the story himself -- certainly not with the grim, defensive spin that has become Mr. Stephanopoulos' trademark.

A more adaptive strategy would recognize that today's reporters are likely to reward gratuitous honesty. Look at Rep. Barney Frank. In 1989, the papers reported that Mr. Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, had employed a gay male prostitute in a ''personal capacity.'' What did Mr. Frank do? He freely admitted what hadn't been proven: that he knew the man was still turning tricks while ''working'' for him!

Mr. Frank violated the old damage-control rules. But he satisfied the new, cynical rules. If he was that honest, maybe he wasn't playing the usual games.

Mr. Frank was re-elected. Mr. Clinton should be so lucky.

TRB is a column of the New Republic written by Mickey Kaus.

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