Spaghetti syntax is alien to Clinton


WASHINGTON -- Words are George Bush's enemies; President-elect Bill Clinton has showed that they can be his friends.

That was the dominant impression of a presidential style in embryo as it emerged yesterday in Little Rock, Ark., from Mr. Clinton's first full-dress news conference since his victory 10 days ago. Whatever one thought of the substance of what he said -- and there was plenty of room for argument, because he stated his view bluntly in some cases -- the man from Arkansas left not the slightest doubt that the White House will get its syntax tightened when he moves in next Jan. 20.

Mr. Clinton has no experience in the federal government, and Mr. Bush made much of that in his losing re-election campaign.

But the Arkansas governor showed a command of the details and nuances of a wide range of topics, from Haitian refugees and Washington lobbying to the savings and loan scandal. He sounded as if he had been dealing daily with such issues for a long time.

Of course, the trademark windiness, which the country experienced during the 1988 and 1992 Democratic conventions, made an occasional reappearance. And skeptics noted his tendency, displayed during the campaign, to rely on stagy mannerisms, like biting his lip and lowering his eyes in a show of modesty.

But where Mr. Bush often favored an elliptical approach, Mr. Clinton took most questions head on: Yes. No. I haven't decided yet. I've decided but I'm not going to tell you yet.

The president-elect made it clear that he would take his time making appointments, whatever his critics said, but he also made it clear that his would be an activist administration, with the top man more deeply immersed in the minutiae of governing than any, perhaps, since Lyndon B. Johnson.

Asked whether he felt overwhelmed by his new responsibilities, Mr. Clinton, a real government-lover, answered, "No, I'm having a wonderful time."

All of this offers signposts to the future. An American politician's style, knowledge and composure when standing behind a lectern, fielding reporters' questions, can be every bit as important in this country as a European politician's ability to answer questions posed in parliament, or a corporate chairman's capacity to handle the queries of his stockholders.

The news conference is one of the few occasions when the nation gets a look at a president in a situation over which he has only partial control, at best, and his early outings help to form an impression that lasts and lasts.

News conferences have helped make some presidents anbreak others. The coltish charm and quick wit of John F. Kennedy, the easy familiarity of Gerald R. Ford and the effortless command of that old theatrical pro, Ronald Reagan, helped them put their ideas across.

Richard M. Nixon's evident defensiveness and nervousness, MrJohnson's chronic whining and exaggeration and Mr. Bush's spaghetti sentences all got in the way of effective communication. Mr. Clinton manages, somehow, to put together long, involved sentences on the spur of the moment without tripping over his tongue. Here, unedited, is what he said yesterday about the sort of person he wants to manage his foreign policy:

"I want a secretary of state who understands that we havobligations of continuity and obligations of change, and that basically the pillars of our national security and foreign policy ought to be a different but still very strong defense, a commitment to global growth and economic regeneration here, and the fulfilling of our responsibility as the world's sole superpower to try to promote democracy and freedom, and restrain the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

The president-elect also indicated a preference for grander, more official settings than those favored by Mr. Bush, who liked impromptu sessions in the White House briefing room. Mr. Clinton is not yet in office, but he opted for flags and formality, like Mr. Nixon and especially Mr. Reagan, although the president-elect told reporters he was "a real sort of informal person."

It was in his answer to a question about unrealistic expectations, however, that Mr. Clinton most clearly set the tone for the months ahead.

"I expect to keep the focus on these economic issues and I'not trying to scale back, or scale down, or anything else," he said. "I think the American people understand that these problems are of long duration and there won't be any overnight miracles, but I think they expect aggressive and prompt action and I'm going to give it to them."

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