President Clinton's image not at high-water mark


While snorkeling with his kid in Hawaii, President Clinton found himself in one of those no-win situations that politicians hate.

He was taking a brief vacation, which he surely deserved. Since taking office only a few months ago, he's been on a grueling schedule filled with controversy and difficult decisions.

After his trip to Japan, with the pressures of dealing with other world leaders, jet lag and eating raw fish, he wanted to spend a few days unwinding with his family on a beach or playing golf.

But back home, much of the Midwest was splashing through the worst flood in a century. The Mississippi and other rivers were overflowing and swamping towns and farms.

This presented a problem. The TV network news shows could be expected to show the awesome flooding; middle-aged rural women weeping as they tell of losing all worldly belongings to the cruel waters; haggard small-town mayors saying they don't know what to do next; craggy farmers saying they will be doomed without government help.

After the flood coverage, the networks could be expected to shift to Clinton on vacation. Maybe wading into the surf with his daughter and her teen-age friends, or teeing it up on one of those spectacularly beautiful Hawaiian golf courses.

How would the sight of the President hip deep in glistening Hawaiian surf play to Iowans who are hip deep in murky river water?

As the tennis punk in the TV commercial says: "Image is everything." That kid could be a White House adviser.

So Clinton told his press herd that he was cutting short his vacation and flying back to the Heartland to look at the flooding. A reporter asked him why. (The reporter probably figured that if Clinton is on the beach, the reporter is on the beach, which is better than being with Clinton in some rain-soaked hamlet in Iowa.)

Clinton said he wanted to check out the flooding so that his administration would have a solid idea of how much aid it should ask Congress to provide for the afflicted.

So Clinton put away his golf clubs and his going-to-the-beach togs, and put on his looking-at-a-flood togs.

Thus, an image problem, if not a crisis, was averted. Clinton was soon to be seen on TV at the flood: a take-charge, hands-on, I-care, getting-wet-myself kind of leader.

So why is this a no-win situation?

Because there will always be some smart aleck sorts, such as myself, who will see rushing to the flood as an act of weakness.

Or am I the only person in America who knows that there is absolutely no reason -- other than image-is-everything -- for Clinton to go rushing to the floods?

He has a bureaucratic army of federal disaster experts, agricultural experts, emergency loan experts, short-term and long-term relief experts, who can figure out how many homes, businesses and acres of farmland have been drowned and how much disaster aid is needed.

He could have stayed right there in Hawaii and accomplished the same thing, if he had the courage to tell the media: "No, I'm not rushing back to look at flooded Main Street. For one thing, I am pooped. Since taking office, it's been one thing after another: biggest tax hike in history; instant economic miracle plans; appoint someone, dump someone, appoint someone else, dump someone else, look for another warm body to nominate, get a $200 haircut, bomb Iraq, send a few troops to Macedonia.

"Now I just finished several days talking big-time economic hocus-pocus in Japan, where I had to deal with that sly little fellow and not let him pick my pocket while I was scarfing sushi.

"So to avoid suffering from premature middle-age burnout, I'm going to stay here and just loaf around for a few days while my vast bureaucratic network of underlings earn their paychecks, fringe benefits and pensions by doing the real work, which is what they would do anyway, since my presence is not required.

"About the only way I could be of any help would be if I loaded up Air Force One with bottled water and dry toilet paper."

But I guess it takes a certain relentless, unwavering ambition to be a successful politician.

I mean, how many normal people would give up guaranteed tee times in Hawaii to go splash mud in Missouri?

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