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On His Date With History, Clinton Must Decide How to Make an Impression

By Mary McGrory
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 20, 1997; Page E11

William J. Clinton is keeping a date with Clio, the muse of history. This is his second inauguration, but in many ways, it could be his first, the last four years being best viewed as a trial run. Clio is a demanding, cold-eyed creature. The Family and Medical Leave Act and a thinkers' forum on the Inaugural Mall don't quite do it for her. She likes the big stuff. Her favorites are Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. She raises an eyebrow at the likes of Paula Jones and Dick Morris. The lady's not for spinning.

When he raises his hand over the Bible, Clinton will be starting over. His first four years were chaotic. He began with the proposition, already discredited by Jimmy Carter, that you can run the country with old pals from down home and young campaign veterans. The Arkansas contingent was decimated. Vincent Foster killed himself, Webster Hubbell went to jail. Staff members caught in the wake of Whitewater were impoverished by legal bills.

The first year was a blur of blunders: exploding nominations, gays in the military, a haircut on the runway, bone-crunching confrontations with Congress. The health care reform fiasco shattered Hillary Clinton's dreams of a co-presidency. The appointment of Leon Panetta, a principled and down-to-earth former California congressman, as chief of staff introduced a little tidiness to the proceedings, but embarrassments continued, like Hillary Clinton's wandering Whitewater papers and the discovery of hundreds of confidential FBI files in White House offices.

Clio will note, however, that Clinton, after much hesitation, took two steps in foreign policy that were risky and entirely meritorious. He ordered an intervention in Haiti in September 1994. Fourteen months later, he sent 20,000 U.S. troops to Bosnia, where they stopped the war. A street protest that is nothing short of miraculous is flowering in Belgrade.

For Clinton, the bottom fell out with the election of 1994, a Republican sweep. House Speaker Newt Gingrich questioned the relevancy of the holder of the most powerful office on the face of the Earth. Morris, a strategist with the morals of an amorous alligator, was brought in to teach the president the dark art of triangulation, which led eventually to the president's denial that he is or ever has been a liberal. Labels are important to him, and Bob Dole's accusation that Clinton was "a closet liberal" was taken with the utmost seriousness, as is everything in a campaign.

The campaign that brought out his strengths -- his vitality, his instant rapport with fellow citizens of all ages, his lightning-quick understanding of people and events -- also brought out his weaknesses. The president who is so reckless, by many accounts, in his personal life is a nervous Nellie in politics. He always thinks he needs more than he does. His unwillingness to stand by America's poor children came out of his exaggerated view of the consequences of vetoing a third Republican welfare "reform" bill. AFL-CI0 President John Sweeney commissioned a poll that found a majority would give the president the benefit of the doubt and assume that he had legitimate reasons for turning the bill down. But Clinton could not be reassured. He signed a bill that consigned a million more children to poverty. His vow to "fix" the damage he had just wrought was a further affront to friends of his youth who could not imagine a betrayal of such magnitude.

Once Gingrich closed down the government, once Dole turned his back on the principles of a lifetime, there is no end of moments when Clinton's reelection was guaranteed. There were other obvious reasons like a sunny economy and a soaring market. But his most precious asset was revealed to him in a five-state train trip that took him to the Democratic convention in Chicago. Enormous crowds that waited patiently for his train to pass by -- citizens clutching flags, standing at attention -- bespoke an acceptance of him as he was, an acceptance of him as president.

Americans are daffy about celebrities, and their president is one, but 25,000 people at Michigan State University at 11 o'clock at night suggested a reverence for the presidency that could inoculate him as the clouds gather and his peers inspect the excesses in his personal and political life.

Republicans bewailed the national indifference to the "character" issue. But voters had demonstrated in 1992 they would forgive a lot in a man who understands the needs of their daily lives, and a bonding had occurred in the aftermath of the April 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City. The scamp became a father figure. He took the nation in his arms and patted it on the shoulder. He was big, strong, enveloping, the healer, comforter. His people date his real presidency from that time.

The most difficult thing for him in the days ahead may be to meet the mood he sensed on the train trip, the willingness to withhold criticism as long as he behaves presidentially. Clinton's luck is so phenomenal, you would think he would notice it more. But he seems to take little satisfaction in getting away with things that would have sunk another man. He wants complete vindication. He feels sorry for himself that he is ever suspected. He compared himself with Richard Jewell, the wretched security guard who was abominably treated by the FBI in the Atlanta Olympics bombing case. He has a staff that spends its time in preparing memos about "conspiracies" in the press to promote presidential scandal.

Self-pity, which is unbecoming in any president and, given his remarkable escapes, unseemly in Clinton, is a prevalent emotion. He will have many occasions in the months ahead to bewail his fate. We have to hope there is someone in his circle who dares to tell him to knock it off. The public has forgiven him much, but they may not tolerate whining in a man who lives in power and luxury.

Nothing is certain about the second term except that investigations will abound. Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) will head the principal probe into the Asian money raised by Democrats. Whitewater judgments are imminent. Gingrich is entangled with tawdry deals about charitable funds that went to political use. Paula Jones's allegations about Clinton's solicitation of oral sex are in the news. Clinton is in danger of being swallowed whole by scandal.

Democrats hope the better angels of his nature take over in the second term. What if he set himself a goal of rescuing a generation of children? He has put them in jeopardy by signing the welfare bill. He can pull them out. He owes it to them. Clio will be kind to him if he addresses himself to deprived children whose childhoods are as unhappy as his was.

Clinton has wonderful plans to teach them to read. He wants to enlist college students as tutors and let them earn their way through college by helping little children to master their ABCs. It's sound ecology. The children get a friend; the students get a valuable insight into our society, the destitution of lives where there is no love and no concern. It is an enterprise he could not overdo. He could check the needs and the possibilities himself at the local public schools, which are in sad shape and would greatly benefit from his attentions. The first lady could join him in the effort. Chelsea, too.

Clio would smile at the fitness of it. For a man who prides himself on his ability to change people's daily life, becoming a Salvation Army for children who have little hope elsewhere is endlessly apt. Inaugurations are supposed to be about hope. Bill Clinton can save this one from dourness and anti-climax if he decides to sell hope instead of himself for the first time since he ran for office.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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