Washington -- HOW CAN the Clintons be so tremendously clever and intelligent on some levels and be so dismally ineffective on others?
Point in fact: At the always revealing Gridiron Club dinner this winter, both the president, who gave a major speech, and Hillary were the stars of the demanding satire performed by the club of 60 print journalists. But it was Hillary who really stole the show with a video takeoff on "Forrest Gump" in which she appeared as a simple, shawled "Hillary Rodham Gump." Every time the staging changed, she had a different hairdo. At one point she intoned, in her best flat Forrest voice-over: "My mama always told me the White House is like a box of chocolates. It's pretty on the outside, but inside there's a lot of nuts."
Next point: On her trip to Asia, Hillary seemed not only equally impressive but uniquely in her element. Her meetings with the long-oppressed women of Asia, her heartfelt concern for them, her dignified mien, were all admirable.
Some snide Republicans might interject here to suggest that the LTC Clintons ought to go into video "show biz." Other critics of the presidency would hurry to add that they already are in show business. Surely, as part of the "MTV generation," the first couple are far more given to thespianship and to therapeutics than to forcefulness in leadership.
But the bigger story about their propensities for "acting out," I suggest, is far more complicated than that -- and considerably more dangerous. By all indications, the Clinton administration's talents in these directions preclude any ability to mold policy by using or extending American power.
Take the recent trip to Moscow by Defense Secretary William Perry. If ever there was a public exhibition of American weakness, it was this trip. The ever-smiling, eternally conciliatory Mr. Perry was ready at every turn to understand, to enter into dialogue, to give in.
But what about the Russians' "in-your-face" rejection of a U.S. appeal not to sell nuclear reactors to Iran, even though Mr. Perry had gone to the formerly unthinkable lengths of giving American intelligence to the Russians as a come-on? A smiling Mr. Perry expressed his "deep concern."
And what about the fact that Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, the butcher of Chechnya, then threatened that Russia would abandon a treaty limiting conventional forces if the West did not do exactly what the Russians want on NATO -- and, if that were not enough, demanded that NATO be replaced by a new structure which Russia would dominate?
Not to worry! A thoroughly unworried White House spokesman assured the nation that there was "a lot of dialogue left" on the subject before the president goes to Moscow.
Should it disturb us that even Secretary Perry announced on the trip that Moscow may still be working on biological warfare, in violation of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention? Again, Mr. Perry "expressed a concern," before he noted the reasons for all this patience and humility in the face of these new Russian provocations: "We are trying to deflect them away from those programs . . ."
As any analyst of human nature and of the traditional uses of power knows, such acts do not deflect men such as these Russian leaders. Instead, it gives them free reign to refuse to negotiate or compromise. That is where the understanding and therapeutic Clinton policies toward Russia have led us.
Indeed, ever since the president agreed to go to Moscow, and not London, for the May 9 V-E day celebrations, the contempt level of the Russians toward the United States has ratcheted upward. And why not?
I'm afraid that this is what happens when you put the admirable talents of show-biz into the implacable business of using power in foreign policy. The two are antithetical talents. The first tries to understand and amuse people, and to create wondrous fantasies in place of real life. The second demands that societies at certain points of history be held back from their aggressive tendencies by power exerted in the interests of civilization. There, fantasy can kill you!
Major and minor historians, in tracing the decline of the great empires and civilizations, find that in their last phases, they indulge in a debunking cynicism and an evil playfulness, in which the earlier virtues of heroism, morality and nation are constantly attacked.
As British historian John Bagot Glubb has written. "Nation after nation has sung, danced and trifled itself into chaos and slavery."
Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.