Clinton's Tune: 'Yakety Yak'

January 29, 1995|By CARL M. CANNON

Washington -- President Clinton revealed this week that he believes he has hit on the answer to his problems -- and ours. More talk.

Doesn't he feel our pain anymore?

"Words, words, words," cried Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady," "I'm so sick of words!" In 1995, the best evidence suggests

American voters feel the same way. They want solutions from politicians, not more gab.

And yet, Rep. David E. Bonior, the Democrats' No. 2 man in the House, can hardly go to the men's room without ranting to the attendant about Newt Gingrich's book deal. The commander in chief can't in- troduce a hero of the Second World War without being insulted by conservative Republicans still fixated on his draft record.

That's Congress for you, but what's Mr. Clinton's excuse? Even as aides have conceded that he might be the most overexposed president in history, Mr. Clinton has decided that he hasn't talked enough to the American people.

White House officials insist that this is not as zany as it seems. They say that after seeking much advice after the Republican victories in November's midterm elections, the president concluded that his first instinct was correct, namely, that he has given the American people solutions in the past two years but somehow the public doesn't know it.

And so Mr. Clinton came roaring out of his post-Nov. 8 funk with a marathon State of the Union speech Tuesday, a 25-minute job at a Pennsylvania college Wednesday, a White House talk to 26 college presidents Thursday and another speech Friday to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

In these talks Mr. Clinton rarely utters anything he hasn't said before, but this is what the Clinton team calls getting "the message" out. Mr. Clinton doesn't have just one message, however. Sure, he talks about the middle class in every speech, but the middle class comprises something like 70 percent of the adults in this country and even his "middle-class bill of rights" -- a series of complex tax cuts -- is difficult to synopsize briefly.

In his State of the Union speech Tuesday, an address that aides vowed would be tightly focused, Mr. Clinton touched on all the great problems of our age from teen pregnancy to television violence. He also took time to debate whether the government ought to be studying tick infestations, told us how much he liked to hunt, promised to get tough on terrorists' bank accounts and railed at Congress for accepting free football tickets from lobbyists.

This was not considered a disciplined speech by those who've written these things. But it is clear that Mr. Clinton continues to seek the counsel of a wide array of people. President George Bush was nonplused during the transition, when Mr. Clinton asked the guy serving them coffee his opinion about something, but Mr. Clinton's interest in every subject -- and every person's opinion of every subject -- has always been part of his charm.

Of late, the president has met with Richard Reeves, author of a recent biography of John F. Kennedy. Mr. Reeves' longstanding notion is that television stations should be required to give candidates free air time -- this idea suddenly popped up in Tuesday's State of the Union speech. But friends say Mr. Reeves has given Mr. Clinton other advice, too. Once, when Mr. Clinton was lamenting how hard he'd been working for the very people who were most angry at his administration, Mr. Reeves replied that presidents "aren't paid by the hour."

They aren't paid by the word, either. But that evades the question of what Mr. Clinton can do, besides talk. Interviews with several president-watchers show how difficult it must be for a man who literally seeks the counsel of servers.

'Which Bill Clinton is it?'

"The first thing he has to do is decide who he is," says Joel Kotkin, a centrist Democrat from Los Angeles who is a theoretician for the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of Democratic moderates once headed by Mr. Clinton.

"Which Bill Clinton is it who took the oath of office?" he asks. "Is it the NAFTA, reinventing government, bringing-power-back-to-states Bill Clinton? Or the class warfare, welfare state, social democracy, health care bureaucracy Bill Clinton?"

"Sometimes Clinton seems like one of those exotic dancers who you watch and you're still not sure of their sexuality," Mr. Kotkin adds. "I'm 3,000 miles away from the Washington view, but out here, people are confused about who he is. Certainly his own party is confused."

Mr. Kotkin says that the liberal side of the president is doing him in, and that he must accept the demand voters made Nov. 8 for smaller, less intrusive government. "The real problem," he says, "is that Clinton still thinks people are looking to the federal government to deal with these problems."

'Let history judge'

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