Posted on January 18, 1993 in Washington Watch
Inaugural week comes at a perfect time for President-elect Bill Clinton. The week-long, carefully scripted inaugural activities should help Clinton retake the initiative from critics who have been especially harsh in the past few weeks.
In fact, the attacks in the press have been so sharp that many analysts are wondering whether Clinton will have any honeymoon at all after his swearing-in.
Clinton’s communications team was masterful in its management of the press and ability to focus coverage on a single positive theme, but they have recently lost control. Issues that might ordinarily have been ignored, or mistakes that could have been avoided, have instead been the subject of daily press stories. This change in dynamic has put Clinton on the defensive even before his assumption of power.
The hits have come from all sides of the political spectrum, but have largely focused on two areas of concern: personnel choices and policy.
Clinton followed the Reagan model for his transition, and followed the policy of having a hand in all major personnel decisions while simultaneously working on the formulation of policy on many matters. This makes for a very slow and deliberate process, but for some in the press, it was too slow.
Clinton completed his cabinet selection process, as promised, by Christmas, but he and his transition team will fall well short of their goal of filling 200 sub-cabinet and White House appointments by Inauguration day. In fact, fewer than one-half of these posts will be filled. As a result, many Executive offices will be vacant on January 21, and the press has been generous with its criticism on this point.
The criticism, however obscures the reality that there are many conflicting pressures that are a part of the personnel selection process. First, with Democrats in power for the first time in twelve years, there are tens of thousands of qualified individuals waiting in line, eager to serve in the new Administration—hundreds for each position. Among them are equally talented individuals from diverse constituent and interest groups. With an Administration committed to diversity and to building a Democratic majority that can hold power and win reelection, Clinton must choose wisely. The President-elect believes that he must pick carefully at the beginning in order to avoid conflicts down the road which could divert important energy and political capital away from the Administration’s goals.
This attempt to build a compatible team that also reflects the diversity of the Democratic constituency and rewards friends of the winning campaign is the wisest of courses Clinton could choose. He has tried to incorporate the lessons learned from the mistakes of previous Administrations. But the process suggested that there may be lessons for future Administrations from this one as well.
Half way through the process, women’s groups organized a protest to complain that there were not yet enough women appointees. Clinton responded angrily, charging them of being, in his now famous phrase, no more than “bean counters.” In point of fact, however, there will be more women in cabinet and sub-cabinet posts in the Clinton White House than in any previous Administration.
Given the diversity of the Democratic coalition, it is hard to keep every group happy. When Clinton announced the appointment of environmentalist Carol Browner as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, protests emerged from business community. When he turned around and appointed Hazel O’Leary, an executive from the energy industry, to his Secretary of Energy, environmentalists raised a hue and cry.
However, the most interesting of the many complaints from groups who felt left out or slighted by the selection process came from a section of the American Jewish community that not enough pro-Israel Jews were being appointed to foreign policy and national security positions. This complaint set off a somewhat comical reaction in the United States and the Middle East. The background to this controversy is interesting to note.
First, no one can doubt Clinton’s commitment to Israel’s security. But the criticism arises in part from the fact that Clinton’s inner circle of foreign policy advisors is made up of foreign affairs professionals, some of whom are former Foreign Service officers who last served in the Carter Administration. Many of these people are Jewish Americans who are have links with the group American Friends of Peace Now, which is a change from the supporter’s of Israel’s Likud Party who held sway in the Reagan Administration.
The Jewish community supported Clinton overwhelmingly in the election, and it is obvious that there will be a number of Jewish Americans who will receive appointment in addition to those who already have. The animus behind the other part of the criticism, however, is neither a commitment to Israel nor an advocacy of Jewish American appointments. Rather, some groups, most notably neo-conservatives and supporters of AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) feel that their influence is not as great as they feel it should be. And while these two groups may see appointees from their ranks, their criticism has not earned them favor in the Clinton foreign policy and national security circles. Those Jewish Americans who have been appointed feel slighted by the criticism, and the former Carter foreign policy hands feel somewhat insulted.
While each of these rounds of criticism drew some press attention and helped slow down the Clinton media machine, they did not draw blood. What has hurt the incoming Administration, however, are the press stories that have appeared preceding and during the confirmation hearings which attack the integrity and credibility of many of Clinton’s cabinet nominees. The press has actually been harder on prospective cabinet members than have the Senate Republicans, who at one point promised to target some nominees for rough treatment. That threat never materialized, but the press did the dirty work anyway.
None of the criticisms are sufficiently strong to block the confirmation of a nominee, particularly since the Democratic majority in the Senate virtually assures that the President will get his way. Nevertheless, the accumulated attacks have tarnished the reputations of a number of the cabinet-designees to the point where the luster that typically comes with a new Cabinet may have already worn off.
Even before the appointment process began, Clinton’s choice to chair the Transition Committee, Washington attorney Vernon Jordan, was the subject of scathing attacks in the lead editorials of several major newspapers which took issue with his work as a high-priced corporate attorney, and for the $500,000+ fees he received annually for sitting on a large number of corporate boards. Because Clinton had made an issue of the negative influence of Washington “insiders” during the campaign, the appointment of Jordan raised eyebrows. Until this point, Jordan had been on everyone’s list for a cabinet appointment, but he was never appointed. The attacks were apparently serious enough to remove him from active consideration.
Also early in the process Micky Kantor (another lawyer-lobbyist), who was Clinton’s campaign chair and the organizer of the Economic Summit, was attacked for potential conflicts of interest which might arise from his appointment, and he too failed to secure a cabinet post. His long-time friendship with the President-elect and his faithful service during the campaign did earn him a sub-cabinet post as United States Trade Representative. However, the appointment served to keep the press dogging his heels for another few weeks, and he must expect that there will be people watching for a single ethics miss-step.
A similar fate has been dealt to Commerce Secretary-designate Ron Brown. Brown, who served as Chairman of the Democratic Party for the last four years, certainly earned a cabinet post and could not reasonably be denied. But neither would the press deny itself the opportunity to look into the clients and practices of his law firm, and then excoriate him for what they found. A serious miss-step which would have had embarrassing repercussions was only recently avoided when Brown was told, presumably by Clinton and his own good judgment, to cancel a pre-inaugural event in his honor that was to be hosted and paid for by a who’s who list of corporate America. The obvious charge of a conflict of interest arising from the event was the subject of a number of unfavorable stories in the press this week.
Two of Clinton high-level women appointees also came under attack, but not for conflict of interest. Donna Shalala, the first Arab American appointed to a cabinet post, is a favorite target of the right wing for what they call her “left wing” political beliefs. Shalala is a close associate and friend of Hillary Clinton. She succeeded Clinton as chair of the Children’s Defense Fund, a liberal lobbying group which has frequently drawn fire from conservative groups for its advocacy work. As Chancellor of the nation’s largest university (the University of Wisconsin), Shalala has also been an advocate of affirmative action hiring and promotion practices which the right wing calls “politically correct” (read: multicultural and diversity sensitive) education. One of the lowest blows against Shalala was delivered by a leftist fringe group which charged her with being a lesbian—a charge which she denies and which ought to have been ignored by the press but which, for some reason, became a headline story across the United States.
On a more substantive level, Shalala has been accused of being less committed to welfare reform than Bill Clinton, and some doctors’ groups have expressed concern that someone without a medical background was chosen to head the Department of Health and Human Services. A more general spate of articles has appeared in conservative media outlets suggesting that Shalala represents the “Hillary Clinton leftist camp” that will compete for ideological dominance within the Administration with the more conservative elements from the Democratic Leadership Council camp affiliated with the President-elect.
A more embarrassing line of attack has been leveled at Attorney General-designee Zoe Baird. It was revealed that she had two illegal aliens working as domestic help at her home and that she also failed to pay Social Security taxes on their wages. In both cases she broke the law. While countless other well-to-do families also employ illegal aliens and fail to pay Social Security taxes for them, this is a serious embarrassment for a woman who is to become the highest law enforcement officer in the country, not to mention an embarrassment for the man who nominated her. The press has distributed its criticism in this case with extreme generosity.
Negative stories about these and other Clinton staffers, some appointed to high posts and some who have since withdrawn their names from consideration, but the most damaging negative press Clinton has received in recent weeks has focused on policy miscues.
The most serous of these miscues arose from Clinton’s late realization of the effect of some of his campaign statements on those Haitians who would like to leave their country to seek asylum in the United States. After he took action to correct the situation by announcing that he never meant to encourage Haitians to illegally come to the United States, and that he would continue the very Bush policy of which he had been so critical, the President-elect was roundly criticized not only y human rights and Haiti advocates but also by the press. His claim that he was motivated by concern over the safety of Haitians who might attempt journeys in unseaworthy boats rang hollow.
The most common charges were “a stunning reversal”, a “flip-flop” or a serious “backtracking from a campaign pledge”. But as one television commentator noted, “This isn’t the first promise that Clinton has broken or postponed.” A number of articles followed this story and catalogued the “broken promises”: the now-canceled middle class tax cut and the delay in reducing the deficit received the most attention, but there were also numerous stories about Clinton considering the gasoline tax that he opposed while a candidate, and talking about actually raising taxes on most Americans by taxing their health care benefits.
Before the week was out Clinton was hit again, this time by an apparent misinterpretation of a statement he made to The New York Times which implied that he would change U.S. policy toward Iraq. The Times trumpeted the headline that Clinton had offered an “olive branch” to Iraq. The next day Clinton was quick to reassure the world that he had “misspoken” and that he has no intention of “normalizing relations with Saddam Hussein”, but in the eyes of the press, the damage was done.
There are a number of factors that account for this spate of bad press for Bill Clinton, none more clear than the one described two decades ago by former Senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, who once described the press as a “pack” like “birds on an electrical wire. When one lands, they all land,” he noted, “and when one takes off, they all take off.”
The U.S. press is remarkably fickle and hyperactive, and yet they are also driven by a common desire not to be outdone or out of the loop. As former UN Ambassador Andrew Young noted that the press is like sharks insofar as, “when they smell blood in the water, they all attack.”
This phenomenon is beyond the ability of any politician to control, and accounts for some of the high level of cynicism that has developed in American political culture. Nevertheless, Clinton is to some extent to blame for his own troubles. He promised to adhere and hold his appointees to a higher standard of integrity in government and he pledged consistency and commitment to principles. It was his campaign that attacked George Bush and the other Democratic candidates for their cynicism and for their failure to honor their commitment to public service. And so to some extent he has made fair game of the very issues the press is focusing on and that are causing his nominees (and by reflection Clinton himself) so much trouble and serve as the source of so many negative stories.
The very high level of expectations generated by candidate Clinton is an important standard for him to have set; but to be fair to the President-elect and to his appointees, it is unrealistic to expect an Administration to meet such a standard. The very nature of the American political and economic and social system is such that few can meet the higher standards set by those who want to reform the system. Washington is a city of lobbyists, and as long as there is a wedding of big business and big government there will be those who do the natural thing, and that is to be match-makers for the two.
To say that it is unfair to judge Clinton’s Administration by a standard more rigid than that applied to previous Administrations is correct but it will fall on deaf ears in the press rooms across the country, where the announced standards of the Clinton team have been adopted as dogma. That press will attack whenever it sees a deviation from those standards.
Before anyone writes Bill Clinton’s political obituary, however, a number of factors need to be taken into consideration.
He has been down before, and he has experience with being in the water and fighting off the sharks. Each time he has won because he has displayed masterful ability to take his case directly to the American people and win their trust. The very press that has just taken of en masse after their prey may soon come back to roost on Clinton’s wire.
Inauguration week presents the perfect opportunity for Clinton to begin his latest comeback. He has been on the defensive over the past few weeks because he has been preoccupied with the transition process, and with watching world events unfold with him on the sidelines as President-elect, but knowing that he will be in the game and must be ready to go at full speed on January 21st. During this time he has been unable to devote the time and energy needed to shape his message and present the media with a story before it goes to find one of its own. He has lost the momentum.
Only now, with Inauguration Week does he have the opportunity to do what he does so well: take control of the message, mold opinion and create his own press through a carefully scripted series of events designed to put Clinton and his themes at center stage. If he does this successfully, he will have taken momentum back from the press, and it will follow him again, for a while at least.
This is the importance of Inauguration Week for Bill Clinton.
The week began on Sunday with the Clinton’s arriving in Charlottesville, Virginia for a tour of Monticello, the fabled house of the nation’s third President Thomas Jefferson. From there they will take a bus trip to Washington, DC, stopping at two churches along the way. After arriving at Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place of many U.S. leaders and servicemen, the Clintons will walk across the Memorial Bridge past the Lincoln Memorial to the Lady Bird Johnson Center where they will ring a replica of the Liberty Bell.
Monday, Clinton will attend the Washington, DC Martin Luther King Tribute, where he will hear a series of tributes to the late civil rights leader including a recitation of Arabic poetry performed by Washington’s Nahida Dejani. The Clintons will then go to a lunch at the Folger Shakespeare Library for an emotional event, where they will meet with fifty individuals from across the United States, who have been described as “those whose lives and stories touched them [the Clinton] throughout the campaign.” That evening there will be a series of Inaugural dinners and an Inaugural Gala at the Capital Center featuring scores of internationally renowned entertainers. Most of these events will be televised live to the nation.
On Tuesday there will be special events at the Kennedy Center for children and young people, and then what is being billed as an “American Reunion” on the Mall. This massive event will take place under 216,000 square feet of heated tents and will feature a multitude of performances by 60 entertainers and craftsmen from 27 states and food of every ethnic group from 15 states. Michigan has selected a Palestinian woman to represent it, and she will demonstrate traditional embroidery for the 100,000 people who are expected to attend this “Reunion.”
On Wednesday there is will be the swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol Building, the traditional parade to the White House, the famous Inaugural Balls and cozens of receptions across the city. Here, too, Arab Americans will be represented. The Arab American Institute will have two special boxes at the Ball, and later in the week with the Egyptian Embassy will host 50 Arab American Democratic leaders who are participating in the inaugural events.
With this tremendous calendar of events, and with large constituent participation of Americans from every walk of life in the inaugural festivities, Clinton will undoubtedly emerge from week stronger than he went in, and with the momentum to shape the press coverage instead of being victimized by it. His supporters hope that, once he is recharged, he will begin his term fully recovered from what all agree has been a most difficult period of his presidency—even before it began.
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