Clinton Wants to Keep Down-Home Image

But history shows that pressing the flesh as president is difficult due to security reasons and demands on time

LAST week brought the news that President-elect Clinton is planning a people's inaugural - complete with a bus trip from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Charlottesville, Va., to Washington and a White House open house.

Mr. Clinton's activities in the weeks since his November election show him clinging to a campaign style. He meets with President Bush to discuss the transition, then walks through a black neighborhood in Washington to press the flesh. He gets together with former President Reagan in California to discuss getting presidential programs through Congress, then repairs to a suburban Los Angeles shopping mall for a "town meeting."

It all adds up to an attempt to paint Clinton as someone in touch with the people, as a "regular guy" who thinks nothing of marching out of the White House for a cheeseburger.

Will this campaign style continue for the next four years?, asked a National Public Radio host Wednesday night of a correspondent in Little Rock, Ark. "It certainly will," the reporter replied.

Clinton may fully intend to carry on with this style while he is occupying the Oval Office, if for no other purpose than image-management. But being president is very different from being a candidate or a governor, and if history is any guide, he will have to alter his behavior.

When Gerald Ford took over the White House following Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974, there were a spate of attempts to show what a "regular guy" he was. The American people were treated to scenes of the president making his own toast in the morning or walking out to the mailbox at his suburban Virginia home to get his morning paper. A few weeks later, however, he pardoned Mr. Nixon for crimes and misdemeanors in the Watergate affair, and the homey news clips came to an end. Most people's lasting ima ge of President Ford - unfairly, alas - is of a man falling down an airplane stairway.

Jimmy Carter came to Washington with a populist approach, too. He hopped out of his inauguration limousine with wife Rosalynn to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue from Capitol Hill to the executive mansion. This was followed by a couple of radio call-in programs, with a sweater-clad president taking questions from the public as Walter Cronkite moderated. That didn't last long.

The most successful image manager among recent presidents was probably Ronald Reagan. He continued his weekly series of radio "fireside chats" right through his entire administration. And his staff was adept at stage-managing news events just in time to get them on the evening TV news. But his image was badly affected by the Iran-contra affair. One wonders if Clinton's reported admiration for Mr. Reagan's ability to get programs passed into law extends to Reagan's news-management effectiveness as well. Presidential safety a factor

There are two main reasons that presidents' symbolistic schemes fall away. One is presidential safety. Ford was shot at twice in 18 months. And Reagan was shot and seriously wounded early in his term along with his press secretary (who was permanently disfigured), a Washington police officer, and a Secret Service agent. A Secret Service that is still kicking itself over the murder of President John Kennedy is not eager for the chief executive to go gallivanting around in public, where it cannot control a ccess to him.

The other reason is the press of presidential business. There are so many demands on the leader of a superpower that little time is left in the end for pure symbolism. The president retains several trump cards - the White House Rose Garden and the second-floor balcony make great backdrops - but impromptu strolls around shopping malls are probably out. The reason so many presidents spend so much time at Camp David may have more to do with the privacy it affords than the admittedly picturesque setting.

It will be interesting to see how much of this Clinton campaign-style approach will make it past the first six months. Perot still active in politics

The nation also heard this week that Ross Perot intends to resume his patented "infomercials" in January to attract members to his citizens' group, United We Stand, America. The association incorporated this week as a nonprofit lobbying organization in Texas, thus forgoing proposals that it become a third political party. Mr. Perot is planning on financing the membership campaign from personal funds; he spent a reported $60 million of his own money running for the presidency.

There were many questions during the campaign about why Perot was running at all. One former staff member, onetime press spokesman James Squires, was quoted in October as saying the Perot campaign was about influencing policy, not about getting elected.

The incredibly rich in the United States often turn to these kinds of personal projects. After all, they have to do something with all that money. John Rockefeller Sr. established a charitable foundation; Andrew Carnegie founded a peace institute and built libraries across small-town America; Henry Ford built Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum, where he collected artifacts of the country's history. Perot has a sincere conviction that the federal budget deficit must be severely trimmed and the n ation's manufacturing base protected against unfair competition. United We Stand, America, may be his gift to the country.

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