Clinton's Tune: 'Yakety Yak'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington -- President Clinton revealed this week that he believes he has hit on the answer to his problems -- and ours. More talk.

Doesn't he feel our pain anymore?

"Words, words, words," cried Eliza Doolittle in "My Fair Lady," "I'm so sick of words!" In 1995, the best evidence suggests

American voters feel the same way. They want solutions from politicians, not more gab.

And yet, Rep. David E. Bonior, the Democrats' No. 2 man in the House, can hardly go to the men's room without ranting to the attendant about Newt Gingrich's book deal. The commander in chief can't in- troduce a hero of the Second World War without being insulted by conservative Republicans still fixated on his draft record.

That's Congress for you, but what's Mr. Clinton's excuse? Even as aides have conceded that he might be the most overexposed president in history, Mr. Clinton has decided that he hasn't talked enough to the American people.

White House officials insist that this is not as zany as it seems. They say that after seeking much advice after the Republican victories in November's midterm elections, the president concluded that his first instinct was correct, namely, that he has given the American people solutions in the past two years but somehow the public doesn't know it.

And so Mr. Clinton came roaring out of his post-Nov. 8 funk with a marathon State of the Union speech Tuesday, a 25-minute job at a Pennsylvania college Wednesday, a White House talk to 26 college presidents Thursday and another speech Friday to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

In these talks Mr. Clinton rarely utters anything he hasn't said before, but this is what the Clinton team calls getting "the message" out. Mr. Clinton doesn't have just one message, however. Sure, he talks about the middle class in every speech, but the middle class comprises something like 70 percent of the adults in this country and even his "middle-class bill of rights" -- a series of complex tax cuts -- is difficult to synopsize briefly.

In his State of the Union speech Tuesday, an address that aides vowed would be tightly focused, Mr. Clinton touched on all the great problems of our age from teen pregnancy to television violence. He also took time to debate whether the government ought to be studying tick infestations, told us how much he liked to hunt, promised to get tough on terrorists' bank accounts and railed at Congress for accepting free football tickets from lobbyists.

This was not considered a disciplined speech by those who've written these things. But it is clear that Mr. Clinton continues to seek the counsel of a wide array of people. President George Bush was nonplused during the transition, when Mr. Clinton asked the guy serving them coffee his opinion about something, but Mr. Clinton's interest in every subject -- and every person's opinion of every subject -- has always been part of his charm.

Of late, the president has met with Richard Reeves, author of a recent biography of John F. Kennedy. Mr. Reeves' longstanding notion is that television stations should be required to give candidates free air time -- this idea suddenly popped up in Tuesday's State of the Union speech. But friends say Mr. Reeves has given Mr. Clinton other advice, too. Once, when Mr. Clinton was lamenting how hard he'd been working for the very people who were most angry at his administration, Mr. Reeves replied that presidents "aren't paid by the hour."

They aren't paid by the word, either. But that evades the question of what Mr. Clinton can do, besides talk. Interviews with several president-watchers show how difficult it must be for a man who literally seeks the counsel of servers.

'Which Bill Clinton is it?'

"The first thing he has to do is decide who he is," says Joel Kotkin, a centrist Democrat from Los Angeles who is a theoretician for the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of Democratic moderates once headed by Mr. Clinton.

"Which Bill Clinton is it who took the oath of office?" he asks. "Is it the NAFTA, reinventing government, bringing-power-back-to-states Bill Clinton? Or the class warfare, welfare state, social democracy, health care bureaucracy Bill Clinton?"

"Sometimes Clinton seems like one of those exotic dancers who you watch and you're still not sure of their sexuality," Mr. Kotkin adds. "I'm 3,000 miles away from the Washington view, but out here, people are confused about who he is. Certainly his own party is confused."

Mr. Kotkin says that the liberal side of the president is doing him in, and that he must accept the demand voters made Nov. 8 for smaller, less intrusive government. "The real problem," he says, "is that Clinton still thinks people are looking to the federal government to deal with these problems."

'Let history judge'

Even though he is a Republican conservative, Gary Bauer doesn't agree that Mr. Clinton ought to move to the center. Mr. Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, an organization that promotes conservative Christian political views, thought the president erred Tuesday night when he appeared to edge closer to several Republican positions.

"As a conservative, I'm happy my views are so compelling that a liberal president embraced them," he says. "But I think it was a mistake. The prevailing sentiment in this country is disgust with politicians who say one thing and do another.

"The great strength of Ronald Reagan was that he had a core set of beliefs and kept them [during] periods when they were unpopular," Mr. Bauer says. "I think Mr. Clinton should take what is best about the Democratic Party, liberal compassion, and stick by it. He should have said on Tuesday, 'I know my party lost in November, but we refuse to turn on the poor and the dispossessed . . . and we'll let history be the judge. . . .' "

'He was himself'

Ann F. Lewis, a prominent Democrat from New England who now lives in Bethesda and works as vice president with Planned Parenthood, happens actually to be a liberal.

She says that on Tuesday Mr. Clinton sounded a lot like the man who won the presidency two years ago. Ms. Lewis believes it is imperative that his supporters see glimpses of the president they thought they were getting.

That's why she liked the address.

"He was himself," she said. "He was not reading from anybody else's script, he was not reciting anybody else's tag lines. This was him, this was the president people voted for: smart, energetic, interested in a lot of ideas, committed to making a difference for them in their lives."

'The real priorities'

"The president still has a chance to turn it around, but when you talk change these days, you'd better mean it."

The speaker is Rick Ridder, a Denver-based campaign consultant who was one of the first Colorado Democrats to work for Mr. Clinton in the 1992 election cycle.

"The first think he must do is figure out the real priorities -- two or three, max -- and then go for 'em," Mr. Ridder says.

Americans are concerned about crime, education, job security, pollution, traffic jams, high taxes -- and, yes, health care, he says. But Mr. Clinton must accept that he can't solve them all. He ought to propose legislative solutions that are radical, but at the same time possible. One example he cites: a law forbidding health insurance companies to kick clients off their plans when they switch jobs or get sick.

"I wouldn't worry so much about foreign affairs," Mr. Ridder adds. "Everybody around him says, 'Oh, the Europeans are worried about this . . . or that.' Well, they don't vote."

'Keep your head down'

Quite the contrary, argues Benjamin Ginsberg, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University.

"My advice would be to be very cautious and to avoid bold moves at this stage. Bold initiatives are unlikely to succeed," he insists. "The best game now is a waiting game. Keep your head down, Mr. President. Give the public a chance to forget why they turned against you. And give the Republicans a chance to shoot themselves in as many feet as they have. . . . They tend to trip over their heads, their feet, you name it.

"Republicans control the Congress -- and Congress governs the country," Mr. Ginsberg adds. "That's just a fact of life. A second fact of life is that voters have decided that Clinton lacks whatever they want to see in a president. Whether that's justified or not, Clinton should give them a chance to forget."

The best way to do that?

"One aspect of the president is to be the king. He's head of state; he should hold state dinners, take foreign trips, be presidential."

Mr. Ginsberg said that his most enduring image of Ronald Reagan "was at the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty, when he stood, his hand on his heart, with the fireworks, the tall ships in the background, striking his best Norman Rockwell pose, saying nothing."

Carl M. Cannon is a reporter in the Washington Bureau of The Baltimore Sun.

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