As an exercise in political symbolism, President-elect Clinton's first pre-inaugural visit to Washington was a winner. Displaying the expertise in imagery that helped him capture the presidency, he paid ritual visits to the White House and Capitol Hill, stopped by a fund-raiser for wife Hillary's Children's Defense Fund, hobnobbed with elite Georgetown insiders and went for a stroll through a poor Georgia Avenue neighborhood of outsiders.
Bill Clinton may have run for office as an apostle of change, but that does not mean he will fight Washington like Jimmy Carter did or fight government in the fashion of Ronald Reagan. Rather, if we read him right, he intends to co-opt both while signaling to the rest of the country that he is a man of the people who buys de-caf at McDonald's and jogs city streets.
If Mr. Clinton had been in charge of Republican background noise, he couldn't have planned it better. During his visit, the chief news from the GOP was the assertion by Mississippi's Republican governor that this is "a Christian nation" (so much for non-Christians of assorted ilk) and the admission of the State Department that it had been "heinously" used by Bush political appointees nosing around Mr. Clinton's passport records.
While Mr. Clinton's gestures to the political establishment were strictly pro forma -- the Oval Office talk with President Bush, the pleasant chitchat on Capitol Hill, the Georgetown dinner with Pamela Harriman and a few rich pals -- he was innovative in appealing to the public. By attending a Children's Defense Fund affair where his wife, not he, was the speaker, he showed off the future First Lady as the serious, skilled lawyer and politician she is in her own right. She promises to have a bigger impact on the country than any president's wife since Eleanor Roosevelt. And by going to a largely black neighborhood along Georgia Avenue, he catered to a constituency that gave 91 percent of its votes to him even though his campaign was pitched very obviously to white suburbia.
The nation is in one of those infrequent periods when it is largely united and not yet disillusioned. Mr. Clinton is at the peak of his power. His task is to use this opportunity wisely and well. All too soon he will face the gritty problems of recession, federal debt, confirmation hearings, campaign promises unfulfilled and a world, as President Bush frequently warned, where wolves prowl even if the bear is caged. Mr. Clinton has gratuitously raised some divisive issues since election day, but his Washington visit did much to improve his prospects when he takes up long-term residence.