Clinton: Great Communicator or Windy Politician?


Washington -- The unveiling of new monument always requires a president to say a few words, but the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum here was an occasion that demanded profound eloquence. And President Clinton rose to the challenge.

"The Holocaust began when the most civilized country of its day unleashed unprecedented acts of cruelty and hatred," said Mr. Clinton as he stood in a cold April rain. "A culture which produced Goethe, Schiller and Beethoven, then brought forth Hitler and Himmler. The Holocaust reminds us forever that knowledge divorced from values can only serve to deepen the human nightmare; that a head without a heart is not humanity."

This month, in Chapel Hill, N.C., however, this same man tossed away his prepared text during a speech hyped by advisers as a "major address" and went on a rambling discourse about crime, gun control -- and nearly everything else.

"We also -- and I say this in North Carolina, coming from a state where in my home state, half the people have a hunting license or a fishing license or both and we have to shut down factories and schools and towns on the opening day of deer season because nobody shows up anyway -- but we still ought to pass the Brady bill so we don't sell guns to people with a criminal or a mental health history," he said.

This autumn, as Mr. Clinton tries put his stamp on foreign affairs, win the approval of the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and sell the country on his ambitious plan to restructure the health care system, his success depends largely on his ability to communicate a grand vision of what he wants the world to look like.

The Oval Office, it is often said, is the world's most powerful "bully pulpit." But it is still up to the president to impart to the nation the wisdom of his causes and the sincerity of his convictions.

So how do Mr. Clinton's abilities stack up? Is he the gifted and natural public speaker his staff believes him to be? Is he the true wearer of the mantle of "The Great Communicator," a title once bestowed on Ronald Reagan?.

Or is he, as Mr. Clinton's critics suggest, just another windy Southern politician with a knack for gab -- but one who spins long, complex sentences, and babbles on in mind-numbing detail without ever hitting the historic high notes that define a successful president?

"Jimmy Carter was not very good at the set-piece speech, but was quite good at the give-and-take of a press conference, while Reagan was the opposite," recalls Jody Powell, press secretary during the Carter administration. "Frankly, Clinton has always seemed pretty damned good at both."

"Imagine, here's a guy who finishes his sentences," adds California political pollster Mervin Field, in a dig at the notoriously inarticulate George Bush.

But history cautions that a truly successful president must do more than simply put words together in a coherent fashion.

"He's very glib, he's intelligent, he's a very good communicator in terms of being able to articulate his thoughts," Republican Edward J. Rollins, Mr. Reagan's 1984 campaign manager, says of Mr. Clinton. "But he's not a great presidential communicator because he doesn't inspire you to do things. I'm partisan, but when I see him in the Oval Office making a speech, you don't feel that patriotic tug like you did with Roosevelt or Reagan."

Mr. Clinton's own top aides often find him a bit wordy. They also concede privately that he can be flat as a public speaker, especially if called upon early in the day.

"Noooo -- he's not what you would call a morning person," one aide said.

But they also believe that he is unparalleled when he uses the presidential pulpit to educate the American people on a subject he knows well. They cite his address in January to launch his economic plan and his health reform speech to a joint session of Congress last month as examples.

William Miller, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia, agrees, comparing Mr. Clinton favorably to James Madison "for his mastery of detail." During his "economic summit" in Little Rock, Ark., last year, Mr. Clinton put on a show that no modern president, including John F. Kennedy, could have matched, Mr. Miller said.

But Mr. Miller also believes that Mr. Clinton talks too much and lacks the grace, cutting wit and, most of all, the succinct responses John F. Kennedy demonstrated during his press conferences.

"He doesn't have that aesthetic sense that what you leave out is as important as what you leave in," says Mr. Miller.

Even more important, he says, the president must set the nation's agenda and help shape the way Americans see themselves. "He doesn't coin these penetrating phrases, formulate images to make us see things in a different way," says Mr. Miller. "He doesn't have the gift for memorable figures of speech -- and doesn't have a literary sense."

And yet, Mr. Clinton's obvious skills intrigue Princeton University professor Fred I. Greenstein, who recently delivered a paper comparing him with other presidents.

"Bill Clinton is the most astoundingly verbal president we've every had in the White House," Mr. Greenstein says. "Sometimes, it's his very command of language that is his worst enemy. I've tabulated sentences of his that go over 100 words. One of them was 403 words. It had a subject, a predicate -- and a point."

But if Mr. Clinton gets over-immersed in details or bogged down in technicalities, he is not always this way.

He often exhibits a simple and understated eloquence when talking one-on-one with ordinary Americans. At a town hall meeting in Tampa, Fla., Sept. 23, a self-employed painter named Joe Rossiter Jr. told a sad tale of his daughter becoming seriously ill -- and of facing $186,000 in medical costs on a $29,000 salary.

"If your daughter has to have surgery next year, they'll probably do it and do a good job," the president responded, "and that stack of bills will get higher, and somehow the costs will just be spread among everybody else until we fix this system."

And Mr. Clinton's rhetoric can also soar when the occasion demands it.

"The children of Abraham, descendants of Isaac and Ishmael, have embarked together on a bold journey," the president said during the signing of the historic peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians. "Together, today, with all our hearts and all our souls, we bid them shalom, salaam, peace."

This is the same man, however, who has the disconcerting habit of sprinkling presidential pronouncements with decidedly unpresidential slang.

Imagine Roosevelt or even Ronald Reagan, in a speech about economic rebuilding, crudely telling Californians: "You got the shaft!"

Bill Clinton did.

And on occasion, he will simply invent words, such as "wanged," which Mr. Clinton used as a verb in a radio interview while plugging his budget package.

Such lapses make Mr. Clinton an easy target for satire, especially from humorists eager to make any white Southerner into a "Bubba" caricature.

The Bill Clinton who was depicted recently on MTV's cartoon "Beavis & Butt-head" is shown telling high school students, "I could stand up here and talk on and on like some boll weevil, sittin' on a stump, braggin' to a dog in heat, but I'd like to hear what you have to say."

Beavis, taking the president at his word, grabs the microphone and says, "Attention K-mart shoppers, there's a blue light special in the jock-strap department."

"I love that joke!" replies the president. "I'm happier than a pig in slop at the opportunities Highland High offers the hormonally challenged."

The president is a Yale-educated lawyer, but the MTV spoof works because it operates on another level -- the one on which many Americans believe that Mr. Clinton will say almost anything if he thinks it will please his audience.

This is hardly unusual for presidents. It was Harry S. Truman who observed privately that his only reservation about Franklin D. Roosevelt was that "he lies."

The same has been said about Mr. Clinton, and it gets in the way of his message.

"What he says doesn't come from his gut, and people sense that," says Mr. Rollins. "They are not completely certain he's speaking from his own convictions -- or that he has strong convictions."

George Colburn, a Michigan-based historian and filmmaker who has produced two highly acclaimed documentaries on Dwight D. Eisenhower, points out that Ike, despite being needled by Democrats for his Yogi Berra-like malapropisms, left office with a 71 percent approval rating. He did so, Mr. Colburn believes, because whatever he lacked in eloquence he more than made up in credibility.

"Clinton tries to evoke this tremendous sincerity and feeling, but it's this 1970s touchy-feely stuff," he says. "When Ike spoke, it was focused and disciplined and straightforward."

Duke University political scientist James David Barber is a fan of RTC Clinton, but he believes the president doesn't always make it plain what he wants people to go out and do.

"Simplicity is important," Mr. Barber said. Another problem is how much Mr. Clinton is trying to communicate, on so many subjects and in a world where Americans seem to get their information from so many sources. It's called overexposure. Or just plain talking too much.

For example, this month, the president toured some booths set up on the south grounds of the White House by companies favoring NAFTA. The speech that followed was both impassioned and logical. The president seamlessly incorporated a half-dozen arguments in favor of the treaty that were relayed to him moments before by visitors he'd been shaking hands with.

It was an impressive performance, but it received almost no attention from the public or the media. It was delivered with no advance notice, and it contained no "news."

Still, those who actually see him deliver these speeches often are impressed. The testimonials come from interesting sources.

After listening to an earlier Clinton speech on NAFTA, former President Bush observed, "Now I understand why he's inside looking out and I'm outside looking in."

The remark surprised those in the White House East Room, but in an Oct. 2 speech to the California Grocers Association, Mr. Bush amplified on it.

"The speech he gave was absolutely terrific and it made me see how inarticulate I was," Mr. Bush said. "I served between Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, two very good communicators."

Carl Cannon covers the White House for The Baltimore Sun.

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