Bill and Hillary's big misadventure

The Agenda: - On The Edge: - High Wire:
March 24, 1995

It's the economy, stupid,'' has stuck as the explanation for the Clinton Team's winning formula in 1992. Reports from the campaign trail and the team's film documentary ("The War Room") have helped boost this notion. While President Clinton has dealt rather effectively with the economy (perhaps as much by inertia as anything else), he remains extraordinarily unpopular, constantly struggling to retain support from the 43 per cent who voted for him.

The slogan simply was wrong. Elections are about character and leadership ability, with character perhaps less important. Enough was known about Clinton in 1992 to make the character issue debatable. But during the campaign, the language and images conjured up a perception that Clinton would lead. President George Bush meanwhile derided the "vision thing'', as he called it, at mortal cost. Clinton promised to end gridlock, and he pledged that the nation's business would be done differently. And now, two years later, his opponents charge him with the very sins he catalogued - and promise change, of course. The thoughtful voter who believed Bush was shopworn and frayed about the edges, and who simply did not trust or doubted the effectiveness of Ross Perot, gave Clinton their votes. Of all the "interest groups'' that Clinton pursued or might have pursued, this was the most important - and the most neglected.

It is now clear that Clinton was not ready to govern and squandered whatever edge he had on the leadership issue. From November until his inauguration, the news about Clinton centred on his cabinet selections. Investing a significance to the process far out of proportion to its importance, Clinton was "counting beans'' as he chose a cabinet to "look like America''. All well and good, perhaps, but he would have been better advised had he first established the discipline of a good staff. Richard Nixon, like Clinton, had only 43 per cent of the vote in 1968, but he immediately welded together his basic staff consisting of Henry Kissinger, John Ehrlichman, and his very own, self-described "son-of-a-bitch'', chief of staff H. R. Haldeman. Thanks to his staff's deft deflection of criticism, Nixon's first term was very orderly.

Perhaps some day we will conclude that Clinton never had a chance. He was a minority president and the Washington media was sharpening its knives, eagerly anticipating the country boys. But Clinton himself offered his detractors plenty of ammunition. The controversies surrounding attorney general nominee Zoe Baird's hiring of an illegal immigrant and also gays in the military at the outset of his administration offered early evidence that Clinton was indecisive and weak. A month later, he decided to name Kimba Wood attorney general - almost. Then he disastrously nominated Lani Guinier for the civil rights post in the Justice Department, only to beat a hasty retreat. His backing-and-filing on Bosnia and Haiti reinforced his irresolute image. His one-vote victory on the budget Bill, which became the centrepiece of his first two years, demonstrated to the country at large that the presidency was open for business as usual as he catered to special interests. He was a man easily "rolled", said Washington insiders.

At the outset of his presidency, Elizabeth Drew reports, speaker Tom Foley persuaded Clinton to drop his support of the line-item veto and not attack Congress. Foley and others failed to understand that the measure symbolised the kind of change that Americans demanded to free them of the excesses of interest-group politics. Had Clinton fought for such a veto, he undoubtedly would have carried enough Republicans with him - or would have exposed them as hypocrites - to effect a promising beginning to the bi-partisanship so necessary to carry through his program. But Foley and other Democratic barons found the president to be an easy mark.

Perception is reality to some extent and Clinton, despite his promises, appeared to be playing familiar Washington games. Of course, interest-group politics are inherent in the American system. Clinton's problem was that he paid too much attention to some groups and not enough to others, most notably those who had made his election possible.

These three books by some prominent media figures are representative of how that group has seen and reported on the Clinton White House. The emerging history of the Clinton presidency makes it clear that the media has been out of control, aided and abetted in its anarchical course by the Clinton White House. The media is dominated by highly aggressive, arrogant, self-important men and women who write without restraint (or often, careful research), and who lack any historical perspective. When they invoke history, it is usually in the form of meaningless analogies, as, for example, the depression-era example of Franklin Roosevelt and the "hundred days". The "deficit'' is treated as an abstraction, with no willingness to explore how it came about and why it is so intractable.

The media takes many forms, but all have been a problem for Clinton. "No other president,'' John Brummett writes, "was beset as was Clinton by the immediacy, saturation, and viciousness of the Information Age". He confronted home-computer news services, talk radio, 24-hour news operations, and a post-Watergate media mind-set that believed in plumbing the soul of every president, hoping to find the moral blemishes of a Nixon.

Elizabeth Drew contends that Clinton brought his media problems on himself. Together with the Clinton's diffidence towards the media, she writes, the cramped spaces provided for White House reporters "led to a bad mood in the pressroom". Worse, Drew writes, the Clintons would not adjust to the Washington culture. Pity.

Drew's and Bob Woodward's books reflect the media and Washington culture at their worst. Brummett, a newspaperman who observed Clinton as governor, has written the most insightful (if unpolished) book of the bunch. He offers an informed understanding of Clinton's Arkansas years, years which greatly illuminate his later behaviour as president. Brummett describes Clinton as "a man of awesome talent and troubling personal weakness''. As governor, he was a "chronic avoider of the simple truth'', preferring instead "to dice the truth into little pieces''. Typically, he contended that flag-burning could not be constitutionally outlawed, but he thought we could ban it "on some other basis''. He did the same with prayers in the public schools. Brummett knew from the Arkansas experience that Clinton could campaign well, yet governing was another matter. On Clinton's sexual activities, Brummett quickly dismisses their importance; "for heaven's sake'', he writes, "we'd widely suspected (it) for years in Arkansas''. Funny business. The media says everyone does it, that it is commonplace and unimportant - and then loves to play the stories as if they had discovered the wheel. Brummett's book is friendly to Clinton, yet he notes that Clinton had no "plain-speaking, give-'em-hell, don't-look-back Harry Truman in him". The idea of Clinton at the helm during anything like the Cuban missile crisis "was best not even contemplated".

During the campaign, the leading newspapers had camped out in Arkansas, looking for the Clintons' involvement in a shady real estate deal, running down paramours, and supposedly even looking for a trace of the black child Clinton allegedly had fathered. But did they give us a serious exploration of Clinton's six terms as governor? Forget it. Yet Brummett demonstrates that there was a lot to tell the country.

There is precious little to say about Woodward's book. The technique is by now all too familiar. Woodward had the run of the White House, conducted interviews on tapes that will not be available for 40 years (who will care then?), and prowled around until someone confirmed whatever thesis he was pursuing. (It is never clear exactly what "the agenda'' is.) We have the usual suspects in white and black hats. The former in this case are the "consultants'', that is the political operatives who helped elect Clinton. This time the black hat comes with a black dress. Hillary Clinton clearly is Woodward's Madame Svengali; any doubts about her role are erased by a grainy cover photo of Mrs Clinton whispering marching orders (or something) in her husband's ear. The treatment of particular persons is reflected by how cooperative they were with Woodward. The book opens with the Clintons talking in bed; Woodward's access never ceases to amaze. Serious issues are treated on the same plane as petty grievances.

Drew is one of those Boswellian voices that manages to sound profound and insightful, but like Woodward, she has written a rather dull book that is little more than a running compendium of Sunday morning television analyses. She offers a month-by-month, baggy suit-by-baggy suit, mistake-by-mistake account of Clinton's presidency. Every action of the president that she records substantiates her thesis that Clinton and his minions were unprepared to govern.

The media is a clubby group which records incestuous, reinforcing platitudes. In May 1993, Time magazine had a cover of "The Incredible Shrinking President'' with a small photo of Clinton; Newsweek, meanwhile, pictured a distraught Clinton under the headline, "What's Wrong?'' The press and television journalists busily devoted several days to reporting the president's $250 haircut while his plane allegedly held up others in Los Angeles. Yet when Clinton and Boris Yeltsin agreed in January 1994 to turn their nuclear weapons away from one another, the president unsuccessfully competed for space against a woman who had cut off her husband's penis and another who had been involved in attacking an ice-skating competitor. The president says something which used to make news; now, it is subject to the most minute analysis on the front page, rather than in a back-page editorial. Maureen Dowd, reporting in the New York Times on Clinton's trip to Oxford, noted that he had "returned today for a sentimental journey to the university where he didn't inhale, didn't get drafted, and didn't get a degree".

Both Drew and Woodward contend that they are writing a new kind of history. Drew calls hers "middle-distance journalism'', while Woodward argues that his work falls between journalism and history. Gossip would be a fair description, as Nobel laureate Robert Solow has written. Washington DC is a town driven by what is said, whether on or off the record. People are anxious to speak to the Drews and Woodwards, basically out of fear that their enemies are talking. They want their point of view on the record. Co-operate with the inquiring reporter and you guarantee a favourable place for yourself in their "history''.

Both authors are heavily dependent upon anonymous sources. Drew at least acknowledges that her sources are self-serving. But does she seriously believe she effectively "screened'' the self-aggrandisement and vendetta motives that she encountered? She writes, for example, that a Hollywood friend of the president's wanted to change the oath of office during the inauguration. The producer threatened suit and Drew has agreed to drop the remark in future editions. But when she suggests that a senator gave Clinton his vote in exchange for a golf game - a remark that requires a total suspension of belief for anyone who knew the senator - she says that she "stands by her sources,'' which of course are anonymous. The media likes to insist upon the public's "right to know"; part of the knowing requires the revelation of sources to judge better what is being reported.

The media does not, as it often contends, report "what people want''. Although they like to portray themselves as mere intermediaries, in fact they see themselves as much more important. Today, it is difficult to watch television or listen to the radio and not have a reporter intrude. Whether it is a knowing smirk or a sarcastic, caustic line of commentary, the opinion becomes the news. The media is the story. A radio talk show host, anxious to stir listeners, can easily turn to the foibles of the president, making him an easy target. Talk radio, sound bites, fleeting images, and capsule news and summaries have obliterated any long-range, thoughtful perspective and insight.

These books make much of the fact that Clinton is not "feared'' in Washington. That may well be, but what is not reported is that the media does not fear him. Yet they provide clues. When the president confronted a reporter who insisted that he was preoccupied with the gays and the military issue, he sharply rebuked her: "No, you're preoccupied''. She had her revenge in nightly reports from the White House. The same thing happened with an ABC reporter who picked a particularly indelicate moment to ask the president about his process of selecting a Supreme Court nominee. Yet when house speaker Newt Gingrich boldly outlined his intentions, the press dutifully reported his statements and barely offered a hint that checks and balances and the constitutional system remained alive. Gingrich prattles on about "Second Wave'' and "Third Wave'' theories for the future, and the press is oblivious to their implications for a democratic society. The notion of a liberal plot among the media is laughable.

President Clinton has very real shortcomings and flaws, ones that have hobbled his leadership abilities. But he - and most important, the United States - are ill-served by a media that constantly bloats stories or misrepresents them. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal seem determined to work at the Whitewater story however tenuous it has appeared thus far. (The media seems to have taken a collective vow after Watergate that "never again'' would any one dominate a story as the Washington Post did during Watergate.) Harper's magazine last autumn published a scathing assault on The New York Times for its Whitewater reporting, but the charges have gone unanswered.

We deserve better from the media. Early in the budget proceedings, President Clinton proposed an energy tax, based on BTU (British Thermal Unit) consumption. The tax may or may not have been meritorious; but it was at least a first step toward taxing consumption - a novel development in taxation policy. It never had a chance, in part because the energy industry howled. But the country never understood the proposal, largely because the media failed to explain it. Naturally they would contend that no one ever explained it to them. That, however, means that they do need care and feeding and that they can be handled. No one ever explained the Savings and Loan debacle to them either and investors have been cheated (while bank speculators largely have gone scot free). Give the media Whitewater, however, and they all become Woodward wannabees.

Lord Bryce, one of the shrewdest foreign observers of the American scene, more than a century ago raised the issue, "Why Great Men Are Not Chosen Presidents''. In a nation where careers are open to talents, rather than inheritance, where political life is so active, Bryce noted, one would expect "that the highest place would always be won by a man of brilliant gifts''. Bryce's conclusions (however vague) fitted his times; our explanations must be different. But the question and the conclusion remain sadly perennial.

Stanley I. Kutler is Fox professor of American institutions, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Agenda:: Inside The Clinton White House

Author - Bob Woodward
ISBN - 0 671 86486 6
Publisher - Simon & Schuster
Price - £14.99
Pages - 334pp

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