SOMETIMES CLINTON CAN BE A 'BIGFOOT'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton and his top aides spent the week hunkered down as Republicans pushed hearings into Whitewater and Waco, and the war in Bosnia divided the Western allies.

Several presidential advisers have convinced themselves that nothing was ever this bad for a president; that Washington is meaner, Congress more partisan, world affairs more tangled than ever.

Surely, the world is a perilous place. Just as surely, Congress' restive Republicans are feeling their oats.

But there is another reason why Mr. Clinton often seems to be knee-deep in a cow pasture without any boots. He injects himself into the middle of all these issues. He is a "Bigfoot."

Bigfoot is a word used to describe the legendary "Sasquatch" creature of the Pacific Northwest. It is also used in Washington journalistic and political circles to describe a high-powered writer, often a bureau chief, who elbows aside beat reporters to write the top story of the day.

Mr. Clinton likes to muscle in on all the news, using the prestige of the White House lectern to trumpet the good news, the bad news, even the mediocre news.

"Bigfoot is a good word for it -- athlete's foot might be better," said Nelson Polsby, a political scientist at the University of California. "He sure does talk a lot, and about everything. It's quite a phenomenon."

Mr. Clinton began talking about what to do in Bosnia in the 1992 campaign. And he has never really stopped talking about it -- even as the situation steadily deteriorates.

He spoke several times, about the return of Air Force pilot Scott F. O'Grady. Most presidents, of course, would do the same.

But Mr. Clinton also came to the White House briefing room to announce the arrest of CIA agent Aldridge H. Ames for spying, a highly embarrassing episode that predated his presidency and could have easily been left to a CIA director or a White House spokesman.

When David Watkins, an aide, was fired last year after taking a presidential helicopter on a golfing trip, Mr. Clinton announced that, too.

And earlier this year, Mr. Clinton found himself facing questions about the elevation of Larry Potts to the No. 2 position in the FBI -- because Attorney General Janet Reno announced the appointment in the White House briefing room moments before appearing with the president. In most administrations, such an announcement would have been made at the Justice Department, not the White House.

Mr. Potts, who oversaw the FBI's bloody raid in Idaho in which the unarmed wife of survivalist Randy Weaver was killed, has since been demoted. But privately, Clinton officials wondered why the appointment was elevated to a White House matter in the first place.

Michael K. Deaver, keeper of the image in Ronald Reagan's presidency, burst out laughing yesterday when reminded that Mr. Clinton had personally announced the Ames arrest.

"Reagan was usually pretty disciplined, and so was George Bush in . . . not diluting their own message with extraneous stuff," Mr. Deaver said. "But this guy doesn't get it. Bill Clinton has good days, but never good weeks. And this is the reason: He lacks verbal discipline."

Last week, Mr. Clinton caused a stir when he fielded a reporter's question at a Rose Garden event about welfare reform. Asked about base closings, the president launched into a tirade against the recommendations of a panel he had appointed -- and then promptly accepted those recommendations.

Alarmed, George Stephanopoulos, a senior aide, went to the press secretary, Mike McCurry, and tugged on his coat to get him to do something. Mr. McCurry tried to get the president's attention by motioning to cut it off. When that didn't work, he began waving his arms frantically.

Such tensions are inevitable, some former and current White House officials say. Presidents are politicians, and they like to talk. White House image-keepers would prefer to have the president announce just the good stuff -- and leave the bad news to underlings.

It doesn't always work that way, even in the smoothest of operations. During the Reagan administration, aides were trying to decide how to inform the press that Murray L. Weidenbaum, chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, was being squeezed out when they heard Mr. Reagan blurt it out during a speech.

In time, Mr. Reagan's aides learned to shield him from unwanted questions and from making unpopular announcements. This sensible practice was taken to such extremes that it engendered criticism, too.

One example came when the Iran scandal (secretly selling arms to the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini) became the Iran-contra scandal (diverting profits from those sales to Nicaraguan rebels in violation of the law). That stunning revelation was announced in the White House briefing room, but it wasn't Mr. Reagan who faced the music, but Attorney General Edwin W. Meese III.

Once, the Clinton administration had similar instincts. After the April 1993 tragedy at Waco, Ms. Reno was sent out to face the cameras and the questions. At one point, she even insisted that the buck stopped with her. It didn't, because, as Ms. Reno also pointed out to reporters, she had briefed the president before giving the fateful order to the FBI to storm the Branch Davidian compound, a decision that resulted in the deaths of 81 people.

During the next two years, Mr. Clinton never restrained himself from talking about it. Just Thursday, in a speech to law enforcement officials, Mr. Clinton embarked on a lengthy discourse defending the conduct of his administration -- and the decision to storm the compound.

"We know that law enforcement people made mistakes at Waco," Mr. Clinton said. "Our administration said that in 1993. We had an exhaustive review, and when the results came in, we took appropriate action. Changes were made; people were dismissed. That's the way our system is supposed to work."

That speech was intended for Mr. Clinton to show solidarity with federal law enforcement officials. He added that it was "irresponsible" of public office holders to take pot shots at law officers at a time when their role is being widely questioned.

But Mr. Clinton had done that himself just the day before, while addressing an audience of civil rights veterans on affirmative action.

Saying "crimes and violence based on hate" were still common, the president added, "And, I'm sorry to say, that the worst and most recent evidence of this involves a recent report of federal law enforcement officials in Tennessee attending an event literally overflowing with racism."

The next day, however, news reports suggested that the annual event might no longer be the abomination Mr. Clinton had described.

The video film Mr. Clinton had seen of the "Good Ol' Boys Roundup" was 5 years old, according to the original organizer. Also, he said, minorities and women had been invited in subsequent years.

Finally, the controversy had been stoked by militia groups and the National Rifle Association, which are hostile to federal law enforcement in the first place.

"Oops," quipped one red-faced White House official.

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