Remembering Candidate Clinton on Credibility

WITH a number of the president's actions raising the question of his credibility, I decided to revisit an early Clinton get-together with the Monitor breakfast group to see what, if anything, he might have said about what a president must do to keep people believing in him.

That session with the press occurred a year ago last September - a few days before Mr. Clinton announced his candidacy for the highest office. The tape reveals that Clinton himself brought up the subject of the public's cynicism with politicians and what he would have to do to deal with this problem. It was a passionate little speech, something he doubtless had thought about before coming. A summary of his words won't do; so let's listen to it all, to get the full flavor:

"There's a problem that all of us have: A lot of voters see us as self-seeking politicians, who raise money from interest groups so we can get on 30-second television ads to run our opponents down or tell the people what to hear so we can get elected and do what we please. That's the way a lot of folks feel about us.

"And I think there is a great burden to try to reconnect the American people to the political process and make them believe again. And if they can't - if they have no hope, if they have no sense of the possibilities - then they can't be a part of any vision I would offer. And it would then be difficult to be effective if elected - and very difficult to be elected in the first place.

"I think the only thing you can do is to try to demonstrate credibility - to do things that are consistent with what you are saying and try to demonstrate, not only through passion but also through common sense and consistency and not only by that which you say but by what you do; that you mean what you say and you believe the future can be different."

This piece of Clinton wisdom came, interestingly enough, immediately after an answer he had been giving on what he would do about taxes. "Is the aggregate tax burden today just about right?" someone asked. "I think the aggregate tax burden is about right," said Clinton. "But I think the middle-class tax burden is too high."

Here he went on to say that he thought the "overall percentage" of people's income being taxed was "about right" but that he felt those in the higher income brackets should pay more and those with middle incomes should pay less.

The juxtaposition of Clinton's observations about credibility with what he had to say about lowering middle-income taxes was probably accidental. But it's ironic that he was expressing his views about the need for politicians to be "consistent" and "demonstrate" that they "mean" what they say while, in the next breath, talking about a tax plan - described as a break for the middle class during the campaign - that he now seems unable to achieve.

The Bill Clinton who was unveiling his persona and aspirations to the nation's print press that morning looks far different, in retrospect, than the candidate who finally emerged. He was solicitous of approval, even deferential to the questioners. He was obviously a bit awed by the experience and more than a little anxious about the grilling he was expecting, particularly about the charges of extramarital conduct.

He had brought Hillary with him to stand by and provide corroboration when he again delivered a little speech - this one aimed at clearing the air on a most troubling subject. He said he and his wife had had "problems" but they had "worked them out."

Another notable irony that surfaced in his remarks at the breakfast was Clinton's obvious intention to run against a Congress that was in the doghouse with the American voters. Now, of course, Clinton is courting a Congress he once thus spurned, trying to move his programs along. Is it any wonder that he's having so much trouble bringing these legislators, Democrats as well as Republicans, to his side?

Remember the Democratic convention and the way the Democratic congressional leaders were treated by the Clinton forces? People like Tom Foley and George Mitchell and Richard Gephardt were kept on the sidelines. Clinton wanted people to feel that as a president he would not be closely tied to those unpopular fellows on Capitol Hill.

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