A Tale of Chaos Shadows Clinton

As a fly on the White House wall, Woodward rattles Washington

BOB WOODWARD'S story of the Clinton White House and its economic plan is one of those books that Washington people read via the index, first looking up their own names then those of people they know best. That, in fact, is as far as surprising numbers of inside-the-beltway readers get.

Another, bigger circle reads the excerpts from the book that have appeared in newspapers and magazines and have been cited on television. These have somewhat distorted the picture Woodward paints in ``The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House.''

The personal confrontations, the president's temper and indecision, the assertive role of Hillary Rodham Clinton - all these passages have been culled from the text and amplified. Woodward has said in interviews that the ``chaos'' in the White House was almost scary. The full story he tells in the book is not so loaded and not so dramatic.

The achievement here is reportorial. Woodward has gone to extraordinary lengths to reconstruct fly-on-the-wall accounts of the private conversations and dealings that shaped the White House's main piece of business in its first year. The details have gone unchallenged even by White House officials who dispute the unflattering light Woodward casts them in.

The story is an easy read. The economic plan that it traces is not the stuff of high drama - however important its elements may prove to be. But Woodward writes plainly, and he tells his story strictly through the byplay of personalities. ``The Agenda'' follows the formulation of Clinton's economic platform in his campaign through the passage of his economic program a little more than a year later in the summer of 1993. The two bore only a faint resemblance to one another.

Clinton the campaigner promised a middle-class tax cut to correct the 1980s skew in favor of wealthier taxpayers. He promised to make new investments in education and training that would help American wage-earners cope with accelerating economic change. More than anything, he was a New Democrat focused on growth and jobs.

The president raised taxes most heavily on the wealthy, but the middle classes paid a bit more too in the form of a higher gasoline tax. Most of his new investments, and almost all of his economic stimulus program, were washed out in search of deeper cuts in the federal deficit.

Clinton the populist, the candidate so keen on his connection to the common man and his frustrations, had come to design his entire first budget for an elite audience: the bond markets.

That is the frustration that animates the political consultants who ran the Clinton campaign. They were obviously heavily used as sources by Woodward. Campaign strategists James Carville and Paul Begala, media consultant Mandy Grunwald, and pollster Stan Greenberg all thought, in varying degrees, that the Clinton White House was betraying the ideals of his campaign, ignoring the voters who elected him in order to please congressional barons, Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan, and Wall Street bond traders.

Clinton himself seems to share their frustration at times. Yet Woodward's story portrays a campaign platform put together under great political and time pressure with little attention to economic reality. Clinton signed off on the middle-class tax cut, for example, but he was uncomfortable with it throughout the campaign.

After the election, it became increasingly clear that the deficit was bigger than previously believed and that the strongest impact Clinton's first budget would make on the economy was the direction it pushed long-term interest rates. To spur business expansion, home buying, and car sales, Clinton needed to show the Federal Reserve chairman and the bond market that he would seriously reduce the deficit. Then interest rates would drop.

That is, in the end, exactly what happened. The frustrated populists on Clinton's team were right on one score. The White House did a lousy job of explaining to the public what their economic plan was about. No one expressed this view more clearly than Hillary Clinton.

But the populists, with their soak-the-rich, class-war rhetoric, seemed to misjudge the popular mood. Ross Perot had tapped it with his anti-deficit rhetoric. By last summer, Congress was manic with deficit-cutting sentiment that still runs strong.

Except, perhaps, for the working poor, few Americans appear ready for Clinton's vision of government actively helping people who need and deserve it. The deficit of trust and confidence in government and politicians is even deeper than the budget deficit, and the Clinton investment agenda will have to wait until more Americans are convinced that government is under control.

This book is unlikely to bolster anyone's confidence in Clinton's administration. But if ``The Agenda'' indicates anything, it shows that the Clinton White House is ever capable of learning.

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