This presidential lame duck isn't bored

January 06, 1998|By Richard Reeves

HILTON HEAD, S.C. -- The president of the United States began 1998 by spending more than a half-hour politely arguing with a 15-year-old girl who told him she did not believe in affirmative action.

Bill Clinton was at the top of his game -- and his game is not golf. At this point, the end of an American century and the beginning of Mr. Clinton's sixth year in office, the game is hyperactive politics and reactive government.

The New York teen-ager, who said she was worried that she would never get to Yale Law School as both her parents had, was not persuaded by the president's argument of national fairness. Standing apart in a ballroom here, I thought it would have been hard to convince the young lady that her president was as ''bored'' as he has been reported to be these past weeks by the Washington press corp.

Annual event

The New Year's party before that conversation was at Renaissance Weekend, and the rules of the game here, where the president has celebrated New Year's for 11 straight years, prevent people like me, who enjoy it as much as he does, from directly quoting him or anyone else.

But rest assured the Clintons are still the Clintons. He still seemed to know more about any governmental subject than the most expert of questioners here. Hillary Rodham Clinton, of flashing eye and firmer conviction, sent the weekend's organizers scrambling when she walked into a panel of old white guys evaluating her husband's legacy. Without using names or words, the count up front was 16 men and one woman. Mrs. Clinton was outraged and Mrs. Clinton was right.

But back to the president. There was something moving about watching the most powerful man in the world patiently trying to win over one American kid to the idea that there was more to life than her ambitions.

Mr. Clinton's job now, barring cataclysm -- which is quite possible in global economic affairs -- is more political than initiative, and more parental than energetic. He is presiding over a world of ambitions that are now fiercer than his own. His real striving is behind him, but younger folk and forces have to periodically turn to his position and power to get them out of the trouble many of them have a knack for getting themselves into.

Key topics

The three compelling stories of the day, at least to me and many of the others gathered here for a holiday of talk, are these, in reverse order of importance:

1. Chief Justice William Rehnquist's attack on the U.S. Senate, wholly justified if not judicious, for its unwillingness to confirm judges whose politics are not conservative enough for Orrin Hatch or Jesse Helms.

2. The confrontation between the Justice Department and Microsoft Corp. over bully-boy tactics in the computer business.

3. The confusing collapse of Asian economies -- confusing because there is nothing close to American consensus on what to do, if anything.

On the first: The Democratic president has been cautious to the brink of incompetence on appointments, avoiding ideological fights whenever he could, but the Republican Senate has leapt close to vicious irresponsibility in crippling the country's court system unless it serves their purposes.

On the second issue, Microsoft, it seems we have seen this before. For people who care, Bill Gates' determination to eliminate smaller competitors looks a great deal like what John D. Rockefeller, the original, did to independent petroleum operations and even mom-and-pop gas stations before the Justice Department broke up Standard Oil earlier this century. (Microsoft argues that the government does not understand this ''business on the fly,'' which may be true, but the issue is whether any other Americans have real opportunity to compete.)

Finally, and soaringly important, is the whole question of risk-free capitalism. Once again, as in the savings and loan crisis, as in the Mexican financial crisis, banks and investors are overcommitted and want bailouts from the governments they regularly claim are on their backs. In other words, however rescue plans are phrased, the U.S. government, a euphemism for American taxpayers, is going to be pressured again to back up bad debts so that ''investors'' can get back to buccaneering double-digit profiteering and demands that ordinary Americans work more and more for less and less in the name of global capitalism. Sooner or later, some titanic capitalist somewhere should be allowed to go broke so the rest of us can see whether the sky will really fall.

That adventure could be the story of 1998 -- and the odds are that the critical decisions will be made by the man who is running along the beach here with his new ''buddy.''

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/06/98

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