The man who talked through the president

Potus Speaks: Finding the Words that Defined the Clinton Presidency By Michael Waldman Simon & Schuster 287 pp., $25

Picking up Michael Waldman's account of his years in the Clinton White House is like happening across a well-written script of "West Wing."

Because he began in the '92 campaign war-room days and served well into the second term (including Monica), it may seem surprising that this insider account doesn't have the same tattling feel as "All Too Human," by his friend George Stephanopoulos. Nor does it have the tense voyeurism that Dick Morris delivered in "Behind the Oval Office."

What it does offer is episodic realism and a well-ordered look into the sometimes chaotic and embattled Clinton White House. Waldman joined the Clinton team during the 1992 elections, leaving the organization of anti-free-trade progressive Ralph Nader. In a send-off phone call, Nader admonished him, "Remember. Your purpose is not only to serve but to swerve."

But from welfare reform to NAFTA, Waldman helped write the words that swerved the Democratic Party to the center, not to the left, sometimes toward positions he had previously lobbied against.

Waldman shows that the centrist legacy that emerged from the Clinton White House was forged in the crucible of triangulation and pre-polling. Initiatives and policies that the American public would accept, or that would bring some political gain, were repeatedly pursued over those that were unpopular.

Waldman highlights his belief that in the wake of the cold war, Clinton deftly created a new, proactive style of leadership with a unique emphasis on the bully pulpit. It's a form of leadership evident in Clinton's handling of the Asian financial crisis, Waldman posits.

"Dispatching fleets of words, not warships, an American president was able to help turn the tide," he writes. "It was a new world, a world in which global markets mattered more than traditional statecraft."

Sections of the book may delve too deeply into the minutiae of the day-to-day grind for the reader only casually interested in domestic policy. But the White House that Waldman describes is full of in-house cunning and back-stabbing over everything from legislative priorities to word choice for major speeches. It's fascinating in the way a look through an ant farm is.

His description of the speechwriter's craft is also good reading. From the beginning of the republic, they have put words in the mouths of American presidents. They must be part interpreter, part diplomat, and part scribe. By his count, Waldman edited or wrote nearly 2,000 speeches.

"POTUS [President Of The United States] Speaks" lets us witness the angst and serendipity that goes into choosing words for a nation. There are soaring highs when a speech rings true and reaches into the heart of the populace, as occurred during the eulogy following the Oklahoma City bombing.

We also discover what makes a geeky wordsmith high-five a fellow policy wonk as Waldman recalls the president ad-libbing during his 1993 State of the Union address to Congress.

"It was like an actor breaking through the fourth wall, suddenly addressing the audience directly," Waldman says of Clinton drifting away from the words of his carefully sculptured speech. After learning the process of how speeches are written and rehearsed, Clinton's ad-libbing seems tantamount to jogging on a tightrope.

In the worst nightmare for a speechwriter, Waldman recounts a linchpin speech the president made to former presidents, secretaries of State, and other giants of contemporary American history. To Waldman's horror, an early draft of the speech replete with inaccuracies was somehow handed to the president. But when Mr. Clinton realized the situation in mid-course, he again ad-libbed - and improved on the final draft. Even the man he vanquished, former President George Bush, hailed him as an ber-oratist for the feat.

James N. Thurman was a Monitor correspondent in Washington, D.C.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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