Timing: The View From Clinton's Elbow

REFLECTING on his first year in office, President Clinton cited several things that have given him trouble:

The honeymoonless presidency. Previous presidents had been given ``a reasonable amount of time to organize their affairs ... nominate their team ... put their program out ... and have it considered in a more open atmosphere,'' Clinton said, a little wistfully. ``None of that occurred this time.''

A world awash in news. Clinton expressed bafflement over his primary communications challenge - how to get his ideas across to the American people. The heavy news flow is like a stream of traffic with the president standing at the curb, looking for an opening. ``I think that the country is more awash in news than ever before, and so is the world,'' he said. ``It's qualitatively different than it was 30 years ago.'' ``I wish I had a very coherent response,'' he said, ``about how I can better do my job ... when you can break through ... when you can sort of register on people.''

Political polarity. ``I was frustrated by the much greater level of partisanship in this city on certain issues than I had been used to,'' he said, ``which prohibited people from reaching out and working through to a conclusion that was plainly in the public interest.''

Political obtuseness. ``On the day that the economic program passed,'' he said, ``two-thirds of the American people thought it contained a major increase in income taxes for middle class Americans, because that was the clamor, that was the level of rhetoric.''

And then the nub: ``I thought that if we said something and it was so, and we said it enough, it would be heard.''

A lot of people - parents, teachers, department heads - can identify with Clinton's complaint.

Many of Clinton's communications problems are of his own making. I happened to be sitting next to the president as he was making these observations to a group of reporters. He tends to lose an audience in policy-wonk talk. He recites clouds of detail that obscure his basic points.

Clinton is a good listener. He may be a better listening president than a talking president. His voice is naturally soft. He doesn't have the timbre to command a large room. At times he speaks into the back of his hand. He may do better having an even larger proportion of his administration's talking done by others, sparing himself for the fewer times he needs to speak out. He isn't a physical-presence president, as were John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. He does not turn combative; he does relish debating everyone present, as do Robert Strauss and Mario Cuomo. This president seems most comfortable working a room, speaking to little clusters. And that's fine.

No honeymoon? Few new leaders have honeymoons these days. That's the times. New college presidents, company heads, and so on start on the run. They're given a mess to clean up.

News clutter? Everyone has trouble getting attention.

Gridlock? The American democracy was built to be difficult.

Public confusion? When Washington works around the clock - along with almost every other institution today - it gets hard to hear over the general rumble. All the more reason to have smart presidents in office and good reporters and analysts in the media -

with time and space to put things in a right order.

If I heard one thing clearly from the president, it was a longing for the wisdom to know when to speak and act.

Timing - knowing when to move, when to wait - is all in politics, as in education, in business, or in asking for a date.

We can all pray for the president's timing in the new year. He doesn't have to campaign continually - whoever said he did? Why can't he take regular retreats to Camp David and create regular breaks, for all of us, in the news? Modern society has developed a capacity to be on the go all the time, 24 hours a day, all around the world. Must it do so? Is there some law of perpetual discourse? Why can't the president just think some weekends, sketch out ideas with his family and friends. By definition, timing requires space, nonaction, so that action can have a right effect.

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