Unrealistic Expectations

By , Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

WHAT do we expect of our public servants?

George Bush, with self-admitted limitations as a speaker, had just delivered one of his best speeches. Like the 1988 convention speech, it had been written, or at least spruced up, by Peggy Noonan. Expectations had been built quite high - more by Democrats set on pouncing on it than by the White House. And it seemed to me that the president (and Ms. Noonan) rose to the occasion.

The day after the State of the Union address the Speaker of the House, Tom Foley, was giving his assessment of Bush's speech at a Monitor breakfast. Like most Democrats, he was finding fault. He was concerned about President Bush being "too confrontational." He also viewed the Bush program for dealing with the recession as too little and off the mark.

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What occurred to me was that a Republican president who had come up with a Republican approach to dealing with economic problems was being criticized for not proposing answers that only a liberal Democratic president would back.

Most of the critiques I read asserted that the speech's "substance" was weak. These commentators seemed baffled because Bush hadn't come up with an approach that would rely heavily on using the federal government and federal funds to solve economic problems. One writer seemed to feel that the days of the Great Depression are here and that it's time for bringing back FDR solutions, like a the Civilian Conservation Corps.

It's all fair criticism, and expected from partisans though not necessarily from the press. Even these critics admit that Bush "at least at first" gave a pretty good speech. Then they go on to brush this aside and say he flunked because he failed on "substance." But what else except a GOP approach should they expect from a Republican president?

Mr. Foley, always the gentleman, really wasn't too angry with the president - at least not much. He said he would try hard to work out something with Bush. He thought compromise positions might be found - even on the president's capital-gains tax-reduction proposal.

Then there's Bill Clinton. What do we expect of a presidential candidate?

Democratic candidate and Arkansas governor Clinton came to our Monitor breakfast last fall. He was accompanied by his wife, Hillary. It soon became apparent that he had chosen this press forum to clear the air of rumors about extramarital relations. He said that he and his wife had had "problems," that they had worked them out, and that their relationship was strong. This, the governor stated, was all he was going to say on the subject. It was enough of an answer for those in the press I talked to afterw ard. While I certainly felt that the actions hinted at were immoral, it seemed to me that if harmony and fidelity had been reestablished, the outcome should be applauded.

Subsequently a former Arkansas TV reporter and cabaret singer came out with the charge that Clinton had carried on a 12-year extramarital affair with her.

To this Clinton (prodded by his advisers) decided to respond, this time on "60 Minutes" before a vast TV audience following the Super Bowl game. The governor said pretty much what he had said at the earlier Monitor breakfast - restating how he and his wife had worked through their problems to a loving relationship. Although he refused to provide details, he did say that the woman's allegation was not true.

I don't think Clinton should have answered this charge, coming from someone who was paid for an interview by a supermarket tabloid widely regarded as unreliable. He should not have honored that accusation by responding. The result was to push him deeply into the controversy surrounding his personal life - a controversy that now may destroy his presidential bid. Perhaps he can still surmount all this. But I think he would be in a better position to do so if he had just stuck to his guns.

Given the Clintons' assertion that they have resolved their problems and are now happily married, I don't think the public is entitled to expect any further information. But now, with the governor having issued a specific denial, reporters will be hard at work to dig up evidence that he lied. And a lie would certainly be the end of the road for Bill Clinton.

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