Clinton's Perceived Weakness Is Actual Weakness

Some of the older hands around Washington remember Oct. 25, 1973, when we awoke to the news that President Nixon had ordered a worldwide alert of American forces, including nuclear forces, to warn the Soviets away from military involvement in the Middle East.

Because this was five days after the "Saturday Night Massacre" - the firing of the Watergate special prosecutor that raised the first serious talk of impeachment - many suspected a diversionary tactic. In fact, it was.

Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin wrote in his memoirs that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger apologized to him for an alert dictated by domestic considerations and promised that it would be called off the next day.

A quarter-century later, the national security apparatus appears to be planning for a bombing campaign starting as early as the first half of February, against suspected chemical and biological weapon sites in Iraq unless Saddam Hussein permits unhindered inspection. An element in the planning is consideration of how Saddam speculates on the decision of a weakened president and whether our allies will support a weakened president.

One way or another, the perception of a weakened president has the effect of weakening him. President Nixon after Watergate, President Carter after the Teheran hostage crisis, and President Reagan after the Iran-contra scandal all complained of losing effectiveness because of the perception of being ineffective. Mr. Reagan had to contend with the suspicion that he invaded Grenada to change the subject from the bombing of the Marines in Beirut.

In the current situation, European newspapers that never did understand how Watergate brought down a president are having even more trouble understanding how a sex scandal could bring down a president. But they are persuaded that in America it can happen, unlike France where President Mitterrand's mistress and child were generally loved.

Helping to persuade the international community that the president may be terminally paralyzed are a host of American commentators. On a single day, Thomas L. Friedman, foreign affairs columnist of The New York Times, wrote: "I knew he was a charming rogue with an appealing agenda, but I didn't think he was a reckless idiot with an appealing agenda." George F. Will wrote in The Washington Post, "His presidency is beyond resuscitation." George Melloan wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "It is the American presidency, not Bill Clinton, that the world looks to for leadership."

In this media age, perception may not only mirror reality, it may help to create a reality. Foreign leaders, like congressional Democrats, make their calculations about Clinton's chances of survival and how to hedge against the chance that he will not.

Thus, the prophecy tends to become self-fulfilling. At this point, it will take more than a vehemently delivered denial of impropriety to restore viability to this foundering administration. And meanwhile, the president will have difficulty getting his vital decisions accepted at face value.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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