The First Term - Inside the white house



When he moved into the Oval Office, Clinton brought with him busts of his favorite presidents to gaze on daily—Jefferson, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy. If JFK was Clinton's model for youthful optimism and style, FDR was the one whose whirlwind opening "Hundred Days" had set a standard for swift administrative and legislative action that Clinton hoped to equal. He intended to enact an economic package within the first three months. Then, at the end of his own Hundred-Day Dash, he would unveil a universal health insurance plan that could define his presidency and assure his place in history.

To emphasize with alacrity the speed with which he would move, Clinton issued a set of executive orders immediately after his inauguration. One imposed lobbying restrictions on members of his administration after they left government—a modest opening gesture to the larger, popular, and nonpartisan cause of lobbying and campaign finance reform. The others were in the more controversial realm of abortion. Following through on his pledges as a pro-choice candidate, he lifted the Reagan and Bush moratorium on federal funding for fetal tissue research, suspended the "gag rule" prohibiting patients in federally funded family planning clinics from receiving abortion information, and directed the Department of Defense to allow privately financed abortions at U.S. military facilities.

These executive orders were among the few matters that went according to schedule early in the Clinton regime. His economic and health care proposals would languish incomplete or unattended until late in 1993. And part of the reason for that was because these central policy issues were quickly overshadowed by minor tempests that swept away the traditional "honeymoon" of harmony between a new president and the press and the public. Why did this happen? To some extent because of an initial failure of the baby boomer president and his staff (much as they seemed at home in the information age) to understand and to manage public opinion effectively.

The first defeat came early in the morning of Clinton's second day in office when he announced that his nominee for attorney general, Zoë E. Baird, had withdrawn her name from consideration. Several days earlier, news articles had revealed that Baird, who was being asked to serve as the nation's top law enforcement official, had knowingly broken the law herself. She and her husband had failed to pay taxes for a Peruvian couple they had hired as household help. A minor flap in itself, the episode signaled larger problems.

To meet his campaign promise of high ethical standards in a new, multiethnic, and representative Cabinet that "looked like America," Clinton had privately committed himself to selecting the first female attorney general. When interviewed before her selection, Baird told Clinton aides of her predicament with the housekeepers. They considered the matter insignificant then and later. But the revelation evoked a loud public outcry and the White House and Congress were besieged with calls from angry citizens. Baird's withdrawal became a political necessity.

The lasting significance of this personnel disaster created by sloppy staff work was that Clinton began to lose control of his public image in the face of attacks. The outrage against Baird was fueled by conservative radio talk show hosts who had emerged as influential forces in the American political debate, chiefly Rush Limbaugh, an articulate former disc jockey whose daily syndicated program was hugely popular. Limbaugh was a strong supporter of President Bush, but also, somewhat inconsistently, the voice of middle-class disenchantment with the federal government. To his dismay, many of his followers had joined the Perot movement and helped cost the Republicans the election. The election of a Democrat, however, gave Limbaugh an opportunity to fuse the antigovernment sentiments of his listeners with his own political agenda. Clinton became his target. He portrayed the president and his allies as liberal elitists who claimed to be saviors of the working class while misusing their household help. Baird's infraction was cited as the inevitable product of feminism and affirmative action that Limbaugh's constituency despised.

Ironically, Baird was a corporate lawyer with moderate political instincts, largely unknown to feminist activists. But her nomination was used by conservative denouncers of Clinton as "proof" that his campaign was a centrist was a pose and that once in power he would revert to his true liberal nature.

Clinton's history makes clear that he was not a liberal posturing as a moderate. His moderation as a student politician and his liberalism on race and Vietnam were equal and competing aspects of his ambiguous political personality. But this inner conflict, plus his need to conciliate and please people, his tendency to see both sides of any issue, and his equivocating style all fed the argument that he lacked authenticity and conviction.

Clinton was also weakened at first by his handling of another issue that dominated the news coverage soon after he took office: gays in the military. Here history conspired against him. Since the year of Clinton's birth, the presidency has been virtually reserved for veterans. Truman—an artillery captain in 1917-1918—was the subduer of Japan, Eisenhower was the military titan of D-Day. Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan had all worn the uniform, while Kennedy and Bush had barely escaped heroic death in combat.

Clinton, in contrast, had protested the Vietnam War and avoided service. Military leaders looked on skeptically when he entered the White House. How would this new commander in chief, who once spoke of "loathing the military," treat the armed forces? It might have been easier for a celebrated veteran, not a perceived draft dodger, to lift the ban on gays in the military. But Clinton had latched on to the growing debate. College students had been protesting their schools' sponsorship of ROTC units that enforced the ban on gays. Several returning Gulf War veterans, including a Medal of Honor winner, announced that they were gay, and the discriminatory policy (already questioned by some on grounds of high administrative costs for small results) had been challenged in court and seemed on the verge of being overturned. And some questioned whether it was worth the administrative expenditure of millions to drum a few thousand gays out of the ranks.

Clinton's campaign response to questions on the subject had been that the military's emphasis should "always be on people's conduct, not their status." He was a firm supporter of gay rights and the first major presidential candidate to hold a gay fund-raising event (in Los Angeles in 1992). He pledged that as president he would end the ban. Immediately after taking office he tried to keep that promise, not fully anticipating the strenuous negative reaction that would elicit from the Pentagon and Congress. Soon, this secondary issue was overshadowing his economic agenda.

How did a deft politician let this happen? Clinton underestimated the intense media spotlight the matter would receive as a dramatic story that aroused passionate moral feelings. Then, when the storm broke, his instincts to conciliate and to avert confrontation had the opposite effect and got him into deeper trouble. Seeking to prevent an early showdown with Congress and to avoid more strain on his weak ties with the military, he did not immediately issue an executive order and command the recalcitrant Pentagon brass to change their ways, but instead he gave his staff and the commanders six months to draft a new policy. That allowed time for anti-gay spokesmen to extend the controversy and win over public opinion. Then, when an eventual compromise plan known as "Don't ask, Don't tell"—in which gays would not be discriminated against provided they did not announce their homosexuality—was introduced on 19 July 1993, it did little to diminish the un-ease about the new president within the military, and it also strained his relations with segments of the gay community who felt sold out by the retreat. And worse, internal White House polls showed that Clinton's defense of homosexuals had provoked a sharp decline in his favorable ratings, especially in the South, which turned against him quickly and perhaps permanently.

In his early reluctance to challenge the congressional leadership, Clinton seemed to be guided by criticisms of Jimmy Carter, another southerner who had arrived in Washington as an outsider. It was said in Washington that Carter's disinclination to engage in political bantering with congressional power brokers had severely hindered his ability to enact his legislative agenda. Yet while seeking to avoid Carter's mistake, Clinton created a new one of his own. He quickly deferred to Democratic leaders of the House and Senate on several issues, most notably on not pressing hard for swift legislation to reform campaign finance and lobbying. He expected that the public would be less concerned with that popular issue if he and Congress broke a decade of gridlock and enacted major legislation on larger economic issues.

But by that compromise, Clinton surrendered the politically useful banner of the newcomer pledged to change Washington's perceived patterns of corruption. His unchanging ends-justify-the-means philosophy would get him into trouble again. To the contrary, he would begin his second term amid calls for another special prosecutor to investigate the questionable manner in which the White House and the Democratic National Committee raised money for the 1996 campaign.





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