Washington. -- In his first news conference since the famous first hundred days of the new Republicans, President Clinton had the look of a man coming out of a storm cellar after a tornado has passed. He seemed glad to be alive -- and that was enough for right now.
He has been practicing, looking at tapes of John F. Kennedy playing the press like a flute, finally learning that he does not have to fill every silence by chattering on about whatever happens to come into his head. He actually said there were things he did not want to talk about right now, and he even tried one-word "yes" or "no" answers.
He unraveled a bit toward the end, rambling on about why he should be re-elected. When asked about Republican domination the past couple of months, he took the question much further and began a stumbling defense of his own "relevance": "The Constitution gives me relevance. The power of our ideas gives me relevance. . . . The president is relevant here." But the bottom line is that there were 19 questions Tuesday night rather than the usual 10 or a dozen because he, for the moment at least, has learned to stop talking and turn away to take another question.
Out of the cellar, the sky -- and his future -- looks brighter than he imagined these past weeks when he might as well have been underground. He sensed, I think, that the odds are that he will be re-elected next year. Certainly he is the man most likely to be on the Capitol platform taking the oath on January 20, 1997. All the others, Republicans, Democrats or independents, have to knock each other out first before getting the chance to take on Clinton.
The political news, as opposed to governance, is going his way again. His only Democratic opponent, former governor Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, dropped out this week. And conservatives have obviously figured out that the rise of any third-party 1996 candidate, except for Jesse Jackson, works to the benefit of Mr. Clinton. In a head-to-head race with a plausible Republican candidate, the president may get only the 43 percent or so of the vote he got in 1992 -- but he won then because Ross Perot skimmed off millions of Republican votes.
So, House Speaker Newt Gingrich is on the road trying to persuade Mr. Perot and his people to join his "revolution." So, columnist George Will opened a very effective attack on the presidential qualifications of Colin Powell, who looks a good deal less impressive in a gray suit than he did with all those ribbons on his chest. "No Eisenhower he," was Mr. Will's message last week, which may mean the columnist has concluded that General Powell's real appeal is not so much to his fellow black Americans (most of them Democrats) but to managerial types (most of them Republicans) who admire the former officer's air of cool command.
Mr. Clinton also seems to understand that the big issue a year from now may have evolved from concerns over taxing, spending and escalating deficits, to the growth of the income gaps between middle-class and rich Americans. The American political issue of the end of the century will almost certainly be the squeezing of the middle class, and President Clinton and the Democrats may very well be able to define and sell the notion that the problem is not prayer or welfare mothers; the problem is money. The problem is the upward redistribution of American wealth.
Answering a question about affirmative action, Mr. Clinton said he would say to white male workers: "Your problem is the problem of what's happening to wages and rising inequality in the United States, and it was caused primarily by foreign competition, technology, the weakening of organized labor, the collapse of the minimum wage and, according to the study that was in the paper today, the tax and budgeting policies of the last 12 years before I became president, which aggravated inequality."
He was talking about a new Federal Reserve report stating that the United States has the greatest concentration of wealth (or wealth inequality) of any industrial nation in the world -- and the gap continues to grow. Using 1989 statistics (the latest available), the Fed concluded that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, those worth more than $2.3 million, own 40 percent of the national wealth. (That compares with 18 percent in Great Britain, for instance.) And the top 20 percent of Americans, those worth $180,000 or more, have more than 80 percent of national wealth.
If Mr. Gingrich's Contract with America is perceived, a year from now, as a factor in widening those wealth gaps even more, and if there are one or more serious independent candidates, and the Republican candidate is no world-beater, President Clinton should win re-election. Will he then regain control of the national agenda? That is a different question. He could win and spend four more years trying to persuade us of his "relevance."
9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.