Bill Clinton Is Like ... Bill Clinton
WHO is Bill Clinton? Pundits are knee-deep in analysis during what is termed the interregnum in presidential leadership. Let's first look at who he is not.
He's not Jimmy Carter. Yes, he hails from the South and can talk Southern good-ol'-boy talk as well as Mr. Carter - when the occasion seems to call for it.
When I had my first meeting with Mr. Clinton - at a Monitor breakfast in Washington early in the pre-primaries period - he did remind me of Jimmy. His hair had a heaped-high blow-dry look a la the early Carter, and he had a similar, very engaging smile. Later Clinton's locks were shorn, as advisers told him that short hair was more acceptable to the electorate at large.
But Carter was really a very private person. He was superb at bringing people to his side with his populist message. Voters warmed to his promise of shaping a government in Washington "that is as good as the American people." They liked his independent style. He, too, promised change - and was elected.
Up close, though, Carter played a lone hand. He did turn to several of his old cohorts from Georgia to help him play it. But he was unable - or unwilling - to seek the cooperation of power players in Washington, particularly those in Congress, that he needed to get the job done.
Carter's independence brought about confrontation and deadlock. He was a president whose do-it-my-way style simply didn't work that well in Washington.
On the other hand, Bill Clinton is about as extroverted as anyone can be without overdoing it. Personal political skills are natural with him. He works the crowd with zest. He obviously loves to shake people's hands, pat their backs, kiss their babies. And as a governor he showed he was a master at working well and amiably with legislators who didn't agree with him.
Clinton isn't Lyndon Johnson either. Yes, Mr. Johnson persuaded balking senators and congressmen to go along with him. But while he could apply the sweet talk of promises as well as any politician, he was better known for the Johnson "treatment" - which was a little like the way he handled his dogs: by picking them up by their ears and shaking them.
There appears to be none of this meanness in Clinton, even though he's known for having a "short fuse." This flare-up of temper came out the other day as he complained about his aides not keeping the public away as he tried to get in a round of golf. But the early evidence is that the Clinton temper isn't often on display.
Clinton is not John Kennedy - even though he evokes Mr. Kennedy with hand gestures and his promises of "getting the country moving again." Clinton, like Kennedy, likes to laugh and josh and can tell a good story. He, too, enjoys sports.
As presidents go, Kennedy possessed an incomparable wit. But, of course, he didn't play the saxophone. Ideologically, Kennedy leaned left, while Clinton professes a moderate bent.
Clinton is not Franklin Roosevelt either. Some observers, with no memory, are saying that Clinton, like FDR, has received a mandate for change. And even Clinton, before thinking better of it, was indicating that he, like Roosevelt, would work some spectacular changes during his first 100 days in office. Now, of course, he urges "patience" and says he merely will work as hard and as fast as he can.
Lest we forget: FDR was swept into office with a popular as well as electoral landslide, winning in many areas of the country that had never voted Democratic before. Also, that was before the economic safety net of social legislation that Roosevelt began to set up.
And in 1932, this country was in the Great Depression. So a depressed populace gave Roosevelt a true mandate. Armed with an unmistakable public demand, that charismatic, eloquent president went to work.
So while Bill Clinton in personality and style may remind us of others, he is really simply Bill Clinton, whose character and style and real ability will emerge in the mighty test ahead. The public seems to have come behind him - expectantly, of course, because he has promised a great deal. People naturally want him to be able to deliver. They have a big stake in his success.