A Favored Clinton Format Is Turned Against His Team
By Dan Balz and John F. Harris
President Clinton often has used town hall meetings to navigate through difficult moments in his political career, but his top foreign policy advisers learned yesterday that even a trusted format for communicating with the American people has limits.
As Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger struggled to fend off a series of hostile questions about the administration's policy on Iraq in Columbus, Ohio, administration officials back in Washington did little to hide their conclusion that the event was a bust.
One senior White House official refused to talk about the event, even on a not-for-attribution basis. "It's not helpful to my boss or my goals," he said.
Another administration official who watched the session on TV said it was "like watching a car crash take place before your eyes." It had, he added, all the makings of a major public relations disaster.
A Navy admiral, watching from the Pentagon, was unsettled by the heckling. If such antiwar sentiment was so evident at an event which the administration presumably had attempted to stage manage, he said, it raised questions for him about the validity of public opinion surveys showing strong public support for military action against Iraq.
But White House senior adviser Rahm Emanuel said, "This is about public education, not about public relations. It's a good sign that the First Amendment is being fully exercised."
The Columbus town hall meeting, hatched by the National Security Council staff, was conceived as the right forum for administration officials to explain U.S. policy and the reasons Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's actions could provoke military action soon.
After Clinton's Pentagon speech on Tuesday, the Columbus event was seen as the next step in a plan to build public support for a military campaign designed to diminish Iraq's capability to produce weapons of mass destruction while leaving Saddam Hussein in place.
Instead, the meeting exposed deep doubts about the policy among some in the audience and kept Albright, Cohen and Berger on the defensive much of the time. One White House official complained that CNN, which worked with the White House to organize the session, seemed caught off guard by the heckling and lost control of the proceedings.
Back in Washington, the best defense the administration could muster was that the kind of debate and dissent and persistent heckling that marked the Columbus meeting showed democracy at its most vigorous. It was, they insisted, a sharp contrast to the closed world of Saddam Hussein. As a senior White House official said, the robust debate proved "this isn't Iraq."
White House press secretary Michael McCurry refused to say who had organized the meeting for fear it would appear he was trying to cast blame. "As for anyone in the White House who points fingers," he said, "if they were so smart, they could have stopped this thing in its tracks."
McCurry said that although the White House was resigned to the fact that the event will receive unfavorable coverage in the media, for those in the arena in Columbus, it was a valuable exercise.
One defender of the town hall meeting was former White House official George Stephanopoulos, who said it was not surprising to see Americans questioning policy before potential military action. He predicted Clinton would have strong public support if he decides to strike Iraq.
Former secretary of state James A. Baker III, who helped rally the international coalition for the Persian Gulf War during the Bush administration, agreed with that assessment in an interview on CNN last night.
But he added, "Today's town hall meeting I'm not sure helped that cause a lot."
Staff writer Bradley Graham contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company