`Above the Fray' Strategy Pays Off for the President

Gergen's arrival and good week for Clinton are more than a coincidence

CALL it coincidence, or perhaps David Gergen has the timing of an ace stockpicker for knowing when things can only get better. But just two weeks after the erstwhile Republican operative moved full time into the Clinton White House, the news out of the place is decidedly improved.

Mr. Gergen certainly did not create the breaks that have gone President Clinton's way in the past several days, but his fingerprints are on some of them. He was at least a prominent voice in molding the strategy of expounding only broad principles as the budget bill goes through the Senate. The bill cleared its tightest bottleneck, the Senate Finance Committee, on Friday.

Mr. Clinton's above-the-details strategy was a page straight from the book of the last White House Gergen worked in. "With Ronald Reagan, we would send the bill up to the Hill, and Reagan wouldn't comment on it," says Michael Deaver, who worked in the office next to Gergen in the Reagan White House. This strategy keeps the president out of the fray and gives allies in Congress more maneuvering room.

When it was clear by Wednesday that the current White House was making progress on several fronts, the administration decided to take advantage of the favorable turns of events by holding its first prime-time press conference - at Gergen's urging.

"Actually, I think it was Mr. Gergen who suggested that a lot of presidents have done it, and I ought to do it," Clinton told a few reporters after the Thursday evening press conference.

Recent positive developments for the president include:

* The nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court was drawing praise from most quarters and emerging as a political credit to the president.

* The Senate Finance Committee had reached an agreement over the economic plan that led to Friday's approval of the budget bill.

* The filibuster over the campaign finance bill had finally been broken in the Senate.

* And the national service bill passed committee votes in both chambers of Congress.

"Clinton had a good week this week," said Mr. Deaver on Friday, "and Gergen seized on that."

Prime-time press conferences are better than midday, he adds, because earlier ones are then interpreted by television reporters and reduced to sound bites by evening viewing hours.

Clinton also launched a more aggressive defense against critics of his effectiveness and decisiveness this week, arguing at a Tuesday press briefing: "This is the most decisive presidency you've had in a very long time on all the issues that matter."

Clinton's defense of himself was on the front page of major newspapers Wednesday. This new approach was instigated by Gergen as well, says Mark Gearan, the new White House communications director.

Gergen is spending most of his work day in Clinton's presence. His schedule, says one aide, "is basically the president's schedule."

Gergen, whose title is counselor to the president; George Stephanopoulos, who has more time to spend at Clinton's side now that he no longer runs the communications staff; and Chief of Staff Thomas "Mack" McLarty are the three aides with almost constant access to Clinton.

Mr. Gearan describes the three as the president's general advisers, as opposed to those with specific subject areas, such as national security or economic policy.

Gearan reports directly to Gergen, whose communications role Gearan has described as to "think the big thoughts."

The particular talent Gergen brings to the White House is his ability to deal with the press while shaping the president's message. Relationships between the White House and the press corps had devolved into a steady frustration on both sides that sometimes erupted into outright hostility from the press.

The shift has been anything but subtle.

On Gergen's first day, the door to the press offices that Stephanopoulos had closed off to reporters was open again. The next weekend, the Clintons held a Sunday evening barbecue for the White House press corps on the South Lawn of the White House, greeting them in a two-hour reception line. The press office staff performed a self-mocking musical number, with Gearan on piano.

Some White House staff members thought the song would appear too blatant in playing up to the press. "I said, hey, we are [playing up] to the press," recounts Dee Dee Myers, White House press secretary.

These relationships do not necessarily improve the tone of stories about the White House, but they put the White House in a better position to tell their story to advantage.

"I don't think any of us operates under the misguided notion that you can [play] up to the press and get good stories done on you," says an administration official speaking on an anonymous basis. But it helps to give the press the timely access reporters need.

Gergen's great talent is as an outside analyst, Deaver says. He has a reputation for running late and being disorganized, much like his new White House patron.

He will need other skills to succeed in keeping Clinton focused and strategic, says Deaver: in-fighting, managing staff, and "getting into the president's head." His lack of in-fighting finesse helped colleagues jealous of his access to the press and his influence force him out of the Reagan White House, Deaver recalls.

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