WASHINGTON -- The ceremony marking President Clinton's signing of the crime bill was a true political extravaganza, but it also was a throwback that probably has little meaning for skeptical voters these days. As a media event, it was a classic -- worthy of Buckingham Palace or at least the days when Mike Deaver arranged such televised spectacles as backdrops for President Ronald Reagan.
There were 2,000-plus guests on the White House lawn, including a phalanx of uniformed police and representatives of community organizations and groups of crime victims. Arrayed behind the president were members of Congress who supported the bill, many of them running for re-election and anxious to get their faces in those television pictures. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, running hard on the crime issue, was placed directly behind the podium where the cameras could not miss her.
To the side there was a covey of big-city mayors, Republican and Democratic alike -- Rudolph Giuliani of New York, Richard Daley of Chicago, Ed Rendell of Philadelphia, Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore, Sharpe James of Newark, Wellington Webb of Denver and Norman Rice of Seattle among them. And behind them was a row of American flags whipping in the wind before the Washington Monument, providing just the kind of backdrop used so effectively by the Reagan White House.
The ceremony itself was equally loaded with message -- a woman police officer singing the national anthem, a Navy chaplain praying for "police officers killed in the line of duty and all victims of crime," then Vice President Al Gore thanking all who had supported the bill.
If you were watching on CNN or C-SPAN, you could only infer that this was a very big deal. In one sense, it is just that because it represents the administration's prime legislative accomplishment this year now that universal coverage health care has gone down the drain.
It is also true that the crime issue heads the list of voter concerns right now, so the political equities are pretty obvious. There is nobody out there running for office by defending the criminals.
Moreover, there clearly are some worthwhile provisions in the crime bill -- 100,000 more police on the streets over the next six years, prohibitions against assault weapons, crime prevention programs, all at a federal cost of some $30 billion supposedly produced largely from the savings of Gore's program for "reinventing government."
But the White House is kidding itself if it believes that this is a time when circuses impress the electorate. The picture of all those officials from the political establishment arrayed behind the president is just the kind of thing voters most suspect these days. In their eyes, the opinion polls show, politicians are part of the problem rather than the solution.
In the case of the crime bill specifically, the White House sales job also has been compromised by the complaints of many Republicans and conservative Democrats that it is too heavily laden with pork -- meaning new social programs -- and too extreme in its restrictions on guns. Even some of its supporters privately question whether the measure will ever produce the 100,000 new police officers or whether local government will be able to pay for them after the period of federal funding expires.
From Clinton's standpoint -- and Democrats who must run under his banner this fall -- the importance was that this was the culmination of a legislative success, the first of such proportions since the approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement late last year.
The president and his political advisers are convinced, with considerable justification, that he has never received the credit he deserves from either the press or public for the accomplishments in his first two years. That is the case even with the deficit reduction plan despite marked improvements in the economy that may or may not have resulted.
But Clinton has not seen his approval ratings plummet to 40 percent or below because there have not been enough colorful media events. He has not convinced voters he knows where he stands and what he wants and is willing to fight to achieve.