WASHINGTON — LOOKING back over his first year as president, Bill Clinton registers surprise at the difficulty of using his bully pulpit to reach the public.
In a wide-ranging conversation Wednesday, Mr. Clinton discussed his views and observations at a Christian Science Monitor luncheon attended by about 50 Washington bureau chiefs and national columnists.
He recounted his greatest frustrations and delights in office:
* He sees a recent sea change in attitudes about guns and the need for strong measures to keep them off the streets.
* He sees a modern culture of politics and news coverage that no longer allows for political honeymoons or high approval ratings for politicians.
* He suggests that a generation from now one of the major achievements of our time will be his national-service program for college aid, which passed last summer and ``practically no one knows about.''
Clinton noted with some surprise how a speech he made on crime in the black community a few weeks ago in Memphis ``broke through'' and made a public impact. ``I'd been saying those things for years,'' he said.
Yet he also noted - to his frustration - that when his economic plan passed Congress in August, two-thirds of Americans believed incorrectly that it would raise income taxes on the middle class.
``That was extremely surprising to me. I thought that if we said something and it was so, and we said it often enough, it would be heard.''
Clinton said that his greatest delights during the year were those moments when he could improve people's lives. He recalled gathering wheelchair-bound former Reagan press secretary James Brady and the widow of a South Carolina police officer in the White House for the signing of the ``Brady bill'' requiring a five-day waiting period and background checks for handgun sales. The same morning, the Washington Post carried a story on tens of thousands of gun sales to felons and others stopped by similar state laws.
``And I realized this was actually going to change people's lives,'' he said.
He recalled the visit to the White House of the father of a seriously ill girl who told the president that he feared his daughter would not live. But Clinton's Family and Medical Leave Act allowed the man to take time off without losing his job - ``the most precious time I've ever spent in my life,'' Clinton said the father told him.
The man added, said Clinton: ``So don't you ever think it doesn't make a difference what you do.''
THE president's mind seems to be much on crime and gun control these days, and he sees a nation ready to take more extraordinary measures to stymie violence.
He noted that if an amendment to the Senate crime bill proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California had already been law, then the man who mowed down passengers rapid-fire on the Long Island Rail Road commuter train Tuesday night would not have killed and injured so many people. The magazine of his 9 mm pistol held 15 rounds, and passengers finally subdued him when he stopped to change magazines. The Feinstein amendment would limit the capacity of magazines to 10 rounds, as well as banning most assault weapons.
Clinton himself said he believes that violence has grown so serious ``that we should consider a lot of things we haven't done in the past.'' That might include allowing police to stop people and search them for weapons. ``I wouldn't take it off the table'' of options to consider, he said.
He is also considering ideas from the Republican mayors of Los Angeles and New York to register and license guns much the way cars are registered at the state level. Licensing of gun shops might be strengthened further so that, like clean-air regulations, state and local regulations are added on top of federal requirements.
``I am convinced that most Americans now understand how profoundly important these crime and violence issues are, and how it's time to face them, and how it has nothing to do ... with the culture of hunting and sportsmanship, in which I was raised myself,'' the president said.
Clinton does not agree with his surgeon general, Joycelyn Elders, who recently suggested that legalizing drugs would cut crime. But, he added, ``there are a lot of people who are so desperate for an answer to this country being awash with violence, and crime, and drugs, and gangs that they're looking for other answers. And they're thinking of things that have previously not been thought of.''
Stepping back for a longer view of his presidency, Clinton sees a country ``more awash in news than ever before'' so that the president's words can have tremendous impact, sometimes negative. Yet it can be tremendously difficult to reach the public.
Reporters and editors find conflict more newsworthy than cooperation, he said, so that highly controversial bills such as the Brady bill and NAFTA are well-known, but other important bills such as national service have gone little noticed because they were not controversial.
The character of the news media is one reason his own public approval ratings hang below 50 percent, he told the gathered journalists. ``I think the nature of the times in which we live precludes people from getting astronomical ratings unless somehow you all decide to canonize them, which it seems to me you've all decided it's either not appropriate or in your interest to do. So that ain't going to happen.''
The Monitor lunch was hosted by columnist and former Washington bureau chief Godfrey Sperling, who has been holding breakfast sessions with prominent politicians for nearly 28 years. Clinton is the fourth sitting president to attend.