As Manager, Clinton Seeks Broad, Varied Information

Makes quick decisions when possible but won't be falsely pressured

SEVERAL years ago, Bill Clinton vetoed a bill, then changed his mind later that night.

But the veto had already been slipped under the office door of the statehouse counsel, and the building was closed for the night. So Governor Clinton had a state trooper open the building and fish the veto back from under the door with a coat hanger.

At the heart of the way Bill Clinton leads and manages - and how he would run the White House if elected - is the way he makes decisions.

To some Arkansans, the fished-back-veto episode was a telling instance of a politician who agonizes late into the night over decisions and changes his mind under political pressure.

To others, it showed a leader willing to shift course, even embarrass himself, to do the right thing - in this case to preserve relations with a legislature he had not warned of a coming veto, violating statehouse custom.

Clinton has never been one to snap off command decisions without looking back. Longtime associates and close aides say he rarely decides anything at gut-level, by instinct or intuition. Instead, he is a reflective and deliberate decisionmaker who listens to many sides of an argument, often asks for more information, and takes his time.

In the optimistic view, propounded by friends and campaign officials, Clinton is a powerful, quick-study intellect who consumes details, listens well and widely, and responds creatively to problems. He is quick and too confident to be rushed.

To skeptics, including many in the Arkansas press, he is a politician who agonizes over decisions until forced into a position that he may not stick to.

Like much in Bill Clinton's political life, his executive style was transformed by the election he lost in 1980. Before that, in his first term as governor, Clinton's approach was like that of then-President Jimmy Carter in some respects. He unleashed a relatively unfocused onslaught of initiatives carried out by a small group of lieutenants. He was energetic - and somewhat arrogant.

Back then, says his current press secretary, Mike Gauldin, he would have worried less about offending legislators and might not have fished back that veto.

In the intensive soul-searching that followed his defeat and led to his comeback victory in 1982, he emerged with a markedly different style. He moved slower, brought people along with him, listened more, and forged consensus before pushing programs.

Now, if he were elected president, those around him suspect his mode of operation would be part Franklin Roosevelt and part Lyndon Johnson.

Like Roosevelt, Clinton likes to hear his staff debate and compete rather than wait to be presented with neat policy recommendations, according to campaign staff members.

Like Johnson, Clinton loves practicing the art of politics - talking political strategy, negotiating with politicians into the night, and campaigning.

"He likes to hear a lot of views," says Eli Segal, campaign chief of staff and the businessman who organized much of the structure of the campaign, "and he generally concludes that the answer is some combination of all the views he's heard." Clinton listens well

As a result, he has a campaign that is not very hierarchical and has an atmosphere that campaign manager David Wilhelm calls "creative tension." He listens, say aides. At meetings, Clinton will sometimes ask for the best question of the day to start the agenda, says Saul Benjamin, a policy expert on the campaign staff. "It's not all top-down."

Clinton's decisions are not instant, says Wilhelm. They are more deliberate. "Basically, he is an information freak," says Mr. Gauldin of the governor's office. "If he doesn't feel he has enough information, he sends you off to get some."

If all the information is at hand, says Gauldin, "you can sit down with him in one afternoon and make 50 decisions." If a decision takes a difficult consensus, it can take a year, he adds.

Clinton won't be rushed. He faced tremendous pressure to decide his view of the North American Free Trade Agreement earlier in the fall campaign, says Wilhelm. But he waited until early October, after he had studied the document in all its details, and talked to all possible sides. "He refused to be bullied into immediately taking a position," he says.

Yet that scenario is also often cited as an example of Clinton's reluctance to make bold decisions. Seeks many sources

Staff members mention two ways that Clinton puts his stamp on the culture of his own campaign organization. One is that people gather views from different points, says Mr. Benjamin, such as discussing health-care reform ideas with labor people and environmental policy with business people. "That's one area where Bill sets a standard."

Another is his relentless egalitarianism. Clinton treats all potential votes with respect. If someone in the public or on the campaign is not treated well by his staff, says Wilhelm, "that really, really bothers him."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.