A vote for moderation, caution

September 07, 1994|By J. Herbert Altschull

ACCORDING to many critics, Bill Clinton's presidency is at risk because of his weaknesses, because he doesn't display a tough image and doesn't use his bully pulpit to drive home his messages at home and abroad. Foreign leaders like Panama's Guillermo Endara and American politicians like Democratic Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska snub the president and kick sand in his face. Mr. Clinton's laid-back style, it is said, is sapping his power.

It is true that Mr. Clinton's approval ratings are low and that George Bush, despite early criticism, became (according to the polls) the most popular president the United States has ever seen after he ordered an invasion of Iraq. It does seem as if political leaders and the general public as well have lost respect for the office of the president of the United States.

But don't be fooled. Don't blame this development on Bill Clinton or his presidential style. Remember: there are two factors involved, as there are in any change. It doesn't have to be that Mr. Clinton has changed the power equation; it doesn't have to be that the wielder of power has changed it. It can be -- and in my opinion is -- that the targets of power have changed.

You don't have to look for this sweeping change in high places. It is perfectly clear that the power of parents over their children has weakened enormously. Try to tell a 12-year-old to be home for dinner by 5. It is equally clear that the power of teachers over their students has crumbled. Once upon a time, no one dared to challenge a teacher's grade. Likewise, the power of unions over their members has largely vanished. Union endorsement of a candidate may in fact harm his or her chances of election. The list goes on and on.

The same is true in the world of politics and diplomacy. In the heyday of the Soviet Union, a word from the general secretary brought instant compliance. In the United States, a party nomination sent the challengers scurrying for cover.

I don't mean to say there have never been exceptions. Of course, there have. But before the war in Vietnam, the power of the president over foreign policy was supreme. It began to slip then, when it became apparent to so many people that Lyndon Johnson was lying to us and Americans were dying because of those fabrications.

Before Vietnam, respect for the presidency on the part of the public and other politicians was almost unlimited. I remember that to challenge Johnson in the early years of the war astounded and angered even your friends; it just wasn't done. To follow the president on foreign policy, to follow the leader, was the accepted course of conduct.

Since those years, the prestige of the presidency has remained on a downward slope just as it has of all authorities. Consider the volume of public contempt expressed for Johnson's followers: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Mr. Clinton.

At first glance, the presidency of Ronald Reagan seems to disturb the pattern. But consider all those winks and giggles about Mr. Reagan dozing through cabinet meetings and failing to understand the policies he was pronouncing. People liked Mr. Reagan but didn't necessarily respect him. And Mr. Bush? His way of trying to seize respect was to send American military forces into Panama and Iraq. In the end, respect for Mr. Bush disappeared and he was soundly defeated in the voting booth.

Bill Clinton is trying a different style, a folksy, open style. It hasn't sent his approval ratings through the ceiling, but in military confrontations, he has so far danced his way no farther than the borders. He has come under heavy attack for "not doing anything." But he has done something. He has not yet led American troops into a military quagmire.

In any case, there is no indication that respect for authority is increasing. The heart of the bitter cultural war being fought by the religious right is aimed at just that: to restore respect for authority, their authority, not the other guy's.

To be unoriginal, I can suggest that moderation and caution offer the best hope, even if it means low ratings in popularity polls. Isn't the risky course of moderation and caution what Mr. Clinton has undertaken?

J. Herbert Altschull is a professor in the Writing Seminars program at Johns Hopkins University. He is author of the recently released "Agents of Power: The Media and Public Policy."

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