Diary of a Mad White House

Clinton's comeback: Less than meets the eye?

Published May 24, 1996 6:43PM (EDT)

Sen. Bob Dole's campaign as "just another citizen" has so far not made much impression in the opinion polls. President Clinton is now 22 points ahead, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Friday. Clinton continues to pre-empt Republicans in general, and the Dole campaign in particular, on such hot-button issues as welfare reform, affirmative action and same-sex marriage.
The turnaround in Clinton's political fortunes is remarkable. A seeming stumblebum from day one in the White House, he went from one catastrophe to another, culminating in the massive Democratic defeat in the November 1994 elections. The notion of a second term seemed laughable. Now it seems almost assured. But how real is the Clinton recovery? On what is it based? We talked -- rather contentiously -- with Jeffrey Birnbaum, a senior correspondent for Time magazine and author of the recent "Madhouse: The Private Turmoil of Working for the President" (Times Books).

The Clinton White House, as your book makes abundantly clear, was a real mess. Now, it seems to be a paragon of competence and smart politics. What changed?

It looks good only in relief -- that is, compared to the Republicans, and, up to now, the Dole campaign. Clinton's people have been able to cherry-pick issues that have hurt what Clinton has cleverly positioned as the "Republican governing party" in Congress.
But looking better is not the same as being better. Yes, it now takes smaller meetings to make decisions, the "rapid response" aspect of his re-election campaign is working pretty well, and his staffers have gotten better at keeping quiet the chaos that is a permanent part of any White House. All this makes it seem that the ship is running much more smoothly, but the White House -- like any White House -- is still a madhouse.

The Rasputin-like Dick Morris, who has worked for more Republicans than Democrats, has been credited with righting the ship.
He plays the role that (James) Carville used to play as political strategist. He comes up with five ideas, one of which may be good, the others not, and one of which is probably crazy, or so those who work with him say. A lot of people in the White House don't like his politics, and they especially don't like the way they can't control him. But they have to live with it.

You write that this lunatic atmosphere is part of any White House, but the Clinton White House came across as especially dysfunctional. Will the early screw-ups have any lingering effects with voters?

All of that did do some damage, but it's hard to know how much. Dole is certainly in a position to use it to accuse Clinton of being a child. The problem is, people don't think of Clinton as a child any more. He's been in their face for a long time now, and they've come to think of him as the president -- which they used to have a lot of trouble doing. It's another loss for Dole, who had to squander all those months running against Republicans when he could have campaigned against Clinton and painted him into some kind of corner.

Speaking of painting, you portray Dee Dee Myers, the former press secretary, as a victim of what you call "the white men's club" in the White House. My impression of her -- maybe it's just my sexism -- was that she just wasn't up to the job. She conveyed little stature or authority, at least in her televised briefings.

I think you do show your sexism, basically. Just because she is young and a woman doesn't mean that she doesn't have a commanding presence. I guess maybe it does mean that, in this society, to a lot of men, especially. I learned a lot interviewing Dee Dee Myers, and I know that she was more than able to do the press secretary job. But she was never given a chance to.

Just to defend myself a little bit --

No, no, you don't need to defend yourself. This is a position I took. I will be criticized, and have been criticized, for suggesting that she was up to the job. Because most people assume that a young woman like Dee Dee Myers can't possibly do a such an adult person's job. This is foolishness. In fact, press secretaries have tended to be very young. Pierre Salinger was as young; Jody Powell was about the same age; George Stephanopoulos was not much older --
I was never particularly impressed with George Stephanopoulos as a representative of the government, either. But I didn't have a problem with Hillary Clinton --

Well, people who don't have a problem with Hillary Clinton are on a certain divide of the political spectrum. Books like mine have a political taint to them basically, even though I didn't mean for it to. People will view it through their own prism.

The Clintons came into power making it clear that they didn't particularly like the press --
Which made their job harder.
Do they like the press any better now?
No. The press is there to be manipulated.

Is that smart?
Whether it's smart depends on what you want the goal to be. If you want the goal to be re-election, then it seems to me to be necessary.
So if anything, the White House has become more heavy-handed with the press.
Very heavy-handed, yes. I was very lucky to have people be as frank with me for as long as they were. Now you can't get that kind of cooperation. Two of the aides I focused on, Gene Sperling and Bruce Reed, even though they cooperated with me for three years, have now been prevented from doing interviews about the book by the White House.
Still, there are journalists like (Newsweek columnist) Joe Klein who seem to have a visceral hatred of the Clintons.
He was like a spurned lover, basically. And he's more of an opinion leader than the "press."
Assuming Clinton wins a second term --
That's a pretty safe assumption at this moment. And if he does win, he will likely carry the House with him.
What might he do with a second chance?
That's a very good question, because right now he is not developing any sort of mandate. Why are we re-electing Bill Clinton? Because he's better than Bob Dole and because we're used to him, and he's not making any mistakes and he's obviously being a moderate, right? But what does he stand for, what does he want in his second term, what set of policies? If he were to do what he did in '92 and set out an agenda, he could get a mandate of really monumental proportions. And he could become a historically important president.

But his caution and his intense interest in re-election has put that sort of mandate-setting into the background. As a result, he may have more of a mushy future, and not a whole lot of room to do what history may think of as great things. If Dole manages to set an agenda in the campaign, that might force Clinton to respond with one -- which would make for a much more interesting race.

Is the election really over already? And if so, can Bill Clinton make more of a second term than he has of his first? Come to Table Talk and sound off.

Quote of the day

Dining with Mr. Wrong

"Dear Miss Manners: Something peculiar occurs when a gentleman who occasionally takes me out to dinner orders fish or a small bird. He blows the bones into his closed fist, shakes them like dice, then throws them onto the bread plate. Is there anything I could say to him without hurting his feelings to amend the bone behaviour?"

"Gentle Reader: Miss Manners doesn't want to alarm you, but what you have there is not a gentleman, but an ancient soothsayer. Gentlemen do not cast bits of their dinner around like dice."

-- Miss Manners column, distributed by United Features Syndicate.

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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