The President in Chains The Clinton Presidency

March 30, 1995|By RICHARD REEVES

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- President Clinton spends an inordinate amount of time feeling sorry for himself. The tip-off is when he begins talking about how hard he works -- as if he were being paid by the hour.

The last time I interviewed him, just before the midterm elections, he realized that congressional Republicans had outmaneuvered him by, in his words, ''throwing a wrench in the works,'' jamming the gears of government and then blaming him because the machinery was breaking down.

Then he said they had ''demonized'' him. They certainly were trying. A bus, sponsored by anti-abortion activists, was cruising Washington using loudspeakers and posters to demand his impeachment for everything from ''Abuse of the Constitution'' to ''Sodomy.'' A $19.95 videotape being peddled by Christian groups accused him of drug-dealing and murder.

''Why do so many people dislike you so much?'' I asked.

He stood up and bent over me and said: ''You know the story about the guy who falls off the mountain, and he's falling down into the canyon to certain death? . . . And he sees this little twig coming out of the mountain and he grabs it as a last-ditch thing.

''He's holding on, and the roots start coming out of the mountain, and he looks down at hundreds of feet below, and he says, 'God, why me? I'm a good man, I work hard, I follow the law. Why me?' And this thunderous voice comes out of the heavens and says, 'Son, there's just something about you I don't like!' ''

What millions of Americans seemed not to like -- leaving aside Mr. Clinton's own character and overexposure -- were Congress and its Democratic leaders, and most everything identified with the 1960s. In excitement and ignorance, the president-elect made two massive political mistakes within a week after his election.

First, he celebrated his victory by sitting down with ''them'' -- former House Speaker Tom Foley and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell. He instantly backed off campaign promises such as the line-item veto, announcing at a press conference that he planned to work with and through the old guard -- ''Partnership . . . co-operation . . . teamwork.'' It was like tying a boulder to his ankle before jumping into Potomac waters.

Then, the first question from reporters was about ending discrimination against gays in the military. He said he would take care of that right away with an executive order -- planting himself on what is, politically, the wrong side of America's cultural gulch.

Watching that press conference on television, the deputy Republican leader of the House, Newt Gingrich, began offering nickel bets that Mr. Clinton would be a one-term president.

He could lose those bets. The President could well be the least objectionable alternative offered to American voters in 1996. But whether he serves four years or eight, he will probably leave office as a failed president. It was on his watch that Democrats lost what might be their last chance for government activism. Between Reagan-era budget deficits and Mr. Clinton's blunders, being president is a zero-sum game, at least in domestic affairs.

In foreign policy, he began clumsily and got weaker, playing a crazy game of threat-deadline-backdown. His closest advisers admitted that his eyes seemed literally to glaze over at the mention of Bosnia or Somalia, or darted around the room when the subject turned to China or Korea. In frustration one of them blurted out to him: ''You're going to put yourself in the position of nuking North Korea, do you understand that? One threat leads to another. You have to think ahead.''

So he turned out a midterm loser, surrendering to the Republicans, blaming the people. At a dinner after the GOP victories, Mr. Clinton deviated from a mellow text to say in bitterness: ''The very people you try hardest to help are those who turn away. . . . The people who are working harder for lower wages and less security than they were 10 years ago, they're the people I ran to help.''

By then he had also found the appropriate Abraham Lincoln quote to rationalize selling out: ''You may take another time, the period going into the Civil War, where Lincoln said, 'I am controlled by events. My policy is to have no policy.' I think this is a time when we have to be highly flexible. We have to be willing to admit it when we make a mistake and change course.''

It may not be much fun. He told me a sad little story about being president in this time of manic surveillance. I had asked why he felt he had to be on television so much, and he answered: ''The inference there is wrong. . . . Because President Reagan was shot, the press takes the position that they have an absolute right to be with me wherever I am spending the night, which means they want a picture of me running every day, which I think is wrong and bad and overexposes the president.''

''Why can't you stop that?'' I asked.

''Ask him,'' he said, nodding toward Mark Gearan, his communications director.

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