The Kids in the White House The Clinton Presidency


Washington. -- "They are just children that's never grown up. . . . Keep off the television till you've got something to say. . . . Stay off that back lawn of the White House with those photographers. Nothing will kill interest in a president quicker."

President Clinton and his young staff have often seemed so insecure in the White House that they have produced a new kind of special-interest group in Washington, the "Grown-Ups" -- including former Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen and White House counsels Lloyd Cutler and David Gergen, Sens. Sam Nunn and Bill Bradley, men of mature style.

That said, the quote above about children had nothing to do with Clinton. Will Rogers wrote that in 1934 -- I substituted "television" for "radio" -- about Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his young helpers. In fact, the presidency has always depended on the undivided energy of young assistants. Their symbol now is George Stephanopoulos, who was 31 when he came to the White House, the same age Theodore Sorensen was when he came with John Kennedy, three years older than Bill Moyers when he joined Lyndon Johnson.

But the times have changed, and so have young lifestyles -- Messrs. Sorensen and Moyers were really young old men, with suits and ties, wives, children and mortgages. Also, they did not wear earrings, or put their feet up on tables and keep them there when the president entered -- and they returned phone calls!

As the kids of the '90s matured a bit (or at least dressed better), it became apparent that the bigger problem of this White House LTC was the kids of the 1960s -- starting with the biggest kid of them all, the president.

Beyond the prolonged adolescence common in politicians, there something like a computer virus hidden in the generation that produced Bill Clinton. The '60s people seem riddled with insecurity, even self-distrust, a lack of confidence in themselves and their peers. "What do you think of 'our' president?" David Letterman asked singer Stevie Nicks. "He's too young to be president," she said. "He's my age." The two icons of baby-boomdom -- Mr. Letterman, too, is the same age -- looked at each other a little strangely and moved on to funnier things.

The secretary of labor, Robert Reich, who was a Rhodes Scholar with Mr. Clinton at Oxford, put it this way: "We're almost all products of the '60s generation, in which the process of decision-making is very different from that of the generation that went before us. It's not just the White House. . . . I'm much more comfortable making decisions sitting around a table with assistants than sitting at a desk checking a box."

I asked President Clinton, who does not like to be alone at a desk or anyplace else, how much of the anti-authoritarianism of the 1960s he still carries with him. "Quite a bit," he answered. "I mean I share a lot of this sort of populist skepticism about Washington."

Mr. Clinton does seem ambivalent about using the power of his office. Certainly he's no father of his country. When he spoke before the French National Assembly last year, he walked

through a members' library with walls of Delacroix's bravura paintings. "Wow!" said the president of the United States. "This is terrific!"

"I wish he wouldn't do that," said another American there, the architect I.M. Pei.

Mr. Clinton once said this of himself: "I acted 40 when I was 16, and I acted 16 when I was 40." That would make him 24 now. This is from John Brummett, a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, on the man he has followed for 15 years: "An insecure overgrown boy, who seems to lack grounding or certainty about who or what he is."

Perhaps because he is so intelligent, Mr. Clinton does not have a "go/no go" mind of the type that serves many military men and political leaders so well. And he is not, by any measure, wise beyond his years, possibly because he has had such limited life experience -- school and politics, that's about it. He was never in the armed services or the Peace Corps; he's never really held a job in the private sector.

"If I lose, do you think I could make $100,000 a year?" he asked a friend, Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute. "That would be good, wouldn't it? Could I make that?"

Like a kid, he does seem instinctively to avoid responsibility and blame, and personal confrontation, too -- psychohistorians have fun with that, leaping immediately to possibilities of childhood abuse -- usually talking about how hard he works and how he tries to do too much all at once.

Margaret G. Hermann, a professor of political science at Ohio State and author of two books on the psychology of political leaders, has tried to catalog the elements of what she calls "the Clinton Factor," coming up with a short list that could describe many teen-agers or graduate students: "His perpetual lateness . . . his quick temper . . . his talking to the very last person at an event . . . his complaining about lack of free time when all those he invited actually drop by . . . his limitless energy . . . his love of politics, cajoling, log-rolling and trench-fighting that make up consensus building . . . his desire to be in the center of everything . . . his perseverance and dedication . . . his thriving on chaos and uncertainty."

And he lies, going well beyond the modern manner of substituting candor for truth. The New York Times reporter who covered Franklin Roosevelt in the White House used to say that his first instinct was to lie, but that halfway through an answer he would realize he could get away with the truth and would shift gears. Mr. Clinton does the same thing, but something is wrong with his transmission. It sometimes takes him an hour, a day or a year to shift subtly or grudgingly into the whole truth.

It is very possible that Americans, most of them, will come to admire Bill Clinton -- he is a man of enormous talent -- but I doubt they will ever trust him. He does not yet seem to trust himself.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad