WASHINGTON -- "Watch what we do, not what we say." That was the motto of the late John Mitchell, who served as Richard Nixon's campaign manager and attorney general (and later served time in prison for Watergate crimes).
Someone applying Mitchell's maxim to recent events in Washington might conclude that the dawning Clinton era is already falling short in the all-important Change category.
ITEM -- The House of Representatives, in a precedent-shattering move, agrees to give a floor vote for the first time to delegates representing the District of Columbia and four territories. However, to soothe angry Republicans (the five delegates happen to be Democrats), House Democratic leaders agree the delegates' votes won't count any time they provide the margin of victory or defeat, rendering the voting privilege largely meaningless.
ITEM -- A spokeswoman for the Clinton inaugural committee, which promised the most accessible inauguration in history, says there is to be no public sale of seats for the inaugural parade.
Instead, the bleachers along the parade route are to be reserved for those with political connections. Later, it is announced that about 15 percent of the seats will be made available for public sale, reportedly the smallest such allotment ever.
ITEM -- The same day, the Clintons disclose their choice of an elite D.C. private school (annual tuition: $10,400) for daughter Chelsea.
The decision flies in the face of Mr. Clinton's populist image and his professed dedication to public education, whose current problems stem in no small measure from the fact that parents with money and political clout have abandoned public schools. Meantime, conservatives label Mr. Clinton a hypocrite for continuing to oppose the use of taxpayer funds for vouchers that might help poor children attend private schools.
ITEM -- On its first day back in session, the Senate ducks a controversy over allegations of sexual misconduct against Republican Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon, agreeing to seat him and pass the controversy on to the ethics and rules committees.
Fellow Republicans had privately warned Democratic senators if they raised a stink about seating Mr. Packwood, the GOP might make a fuss about seating Democratic Sen. Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who faces similar charges.
ITEM -- In line with the president-elect's promise to break the power of "high-priced lobbyists and Washington influence peddlers," a top Clinton transition official -- currently on leave from his job as head of one of Washington's largest lobbying firms -- tells the Wall Street Journal that there is no "substantial" involvement by corporate lobbyists in the transition's confirmation effort.
However, the paper goes on to report, corporate lobbyists are, in fact, coaching Clinton Cabinet nominees (several of whom are ++ themselves highly paid lawyer-lobbyists) for their testimony before Senate committees.
ITEM -- Even before he takes office, Mr. Clinton appears to be waffling on some of his major campaign promises -- including a middle class tax cut and halving the deficit by 1996 -- while at the same time giving consideration to ideas he strongly opposed, such as higher gas taxes. Clinton aides say they were shocked to discover that the deficit will be worse than they expected.
By themselves, none of these incidents necessarily amount to anything. Taken together -- and especially if the pattern grows -- they might.
If the notion gets out that it is business as usual again in Washington, Mr. Clinton and the new Congress could well be in for a short honeymoon.
Not coincidentally, someone who might exploit that notion, Ross Perot, is about to launch a national publicity blitz.
Perot voters have already been singled out as the key swing vote for the next four years. And the Dallas billionaire is leading a membership drive during the week before the inauguration for his group, United We Stand America.
The larger, though perhaps unspoken purpose of Mr. Perot's return to the public spotlight may simply be to send official Washington a message that he will be on their case, watching to see whether their actions live up to their promises of change.