The Mystique Of a President

HOW to account for a president who, when the country is doing so well economically, gets little credit for it?

President Clinton's problem may well be in his personal style: He devalues the presidency by being too familiar. To hold the respect of others a president must keep a distance from those he deals with. It's called ''presidential mystique.''

Bill Clinton, with a good-ol'-boy approach that he should have left behind in Arkansas, has eroded that mystique and much of the respect that goes with it.

One good example: Mr. Clinton supplied an answer to a question awhile back about what kind of underwear he wore.

It was demeaning for a president to answer this. But it was reflective of the public's lack of respect for him that anyone even asked.

This president is a very likable fellow, and his informal style makes him a formidable campaigner. But now that Clinton is in office, this same familiarity undercuts the presidential dignity that the public wants.

In reading ''No Ordinary Time,'' Doris Kearns Goodwin's superb book on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, I was reminded of how FDR, loved by so many people, nonetheless always kept his distance.

Dwight Eisenhower wasn't far behind in being able to express great warmth without getting too close to people.

He was a beloved father figure who doubtless could have won a third term had it not been for the two-term restriction. But Ike never had an easy, informal relationship with anyone except a few cronies with whom he played bridge and, of course, his family.

Indeed, most people who came into the presence of that wartime hero were just a bit apprehensive. I know I felt I was standing at attention in interviews I had with him at Gettysburg during his retirement years -- even though he was friendly and forthcoming.

The public never got to know Eisenhower in any personal way. But he had that big smile that endeared him to the voters. Just about everyone, whether Democrat or Republican, was saying, ''I like Ike.''

There is something that might well be called the ''presidential role.'' I wondered how Gerald Ford would act when the presidency was suddenly thrust upon him. I had known Ford since years before when he had made his first bid for Congress.

When I was with him on several campaign trails, we talked politics and did a good deal of kidding around as I put together stories about him and what he was doing.

And then, shortly after he became president, I was ushered into the Oval Office for an interview. As I came up to shake hands, I said something light and a bit on the joshing side -- just as I might have done in earlier years. He acted as though he hadn't heard me. He was letting me know that he was no longer Congressman Ford and that as President Ford he would brook no nonsense.

Ford knew that familiarity in a president erodes the dignity that the public expects its highest elected official to maintain.

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