The State of Bill Clinton
His State of the Union speech reveals a hugely ambitious man with a bold, if sometimes messy, political style
By Michael Duff/Washington
(TIME, February 7, 1994) -- This time it was supposed to be different.
White House officials gave Bill Clinton, a chronic procrastinator, a full six weeks to get ready for his State of the Union speech. Tired of those harrowing last-minute cut-and-paste sessions that have marked nearly all his major addresses, Clinton's aides met with the President before Christmas to discuss a couple of broad themes for the occasion, "renewal" and "continuity." Three weeks later, they delivered a first draft in a fax to Clinton in Europe. With a week to go, speechwriters David Dreyer and Bob Boorstin met with Clinton on Air Force One to rework weak spots. The new discipline seemed to be working. "This will be a shorter, more focused speech," an official boasted.
But change, as Clinton says, is never easy. He managed only to whittle his speech down to what an Administration wag called a "tight 64 minutes" -- half again as long as most recent State of the Union speeches. He limited his top priorities for 1994 to seven initiatives, eight if you count the information superhighway, but couldn't resist adding a dozen or so secondary and tertiary items, amounting to an enormously ambitious and detailed to-do list by any standard. The carefully planned practice sessions were postponed until Tuesday, and then nearly backfired: the price of the hurried run-throughs was the early onset of laryngitis. "Damn it," Clinton said, practicing at his kitchen table Tuesday afternoon, "I know I'm going to lose my voice." Clinton made it through the speech, but just barely, his voice catching on every fricative by the end. The next day his voice was gone.
The hour-long speech was an apt symbol of Clinton's presidency after one year: a bold, ungainly, often messy affair that moves in many directions, is impervious to order and yet, by sheer dint of effort, may prove successful. Recent polls have shown that Americans -- whatever they think of his policies and his character -- appreciate Clinton's formidable energy and his doughty resilience. And Clinton knows these traits are his biggest advantages. As he told a senior Republican lawmaker last fall, "I'm a lot like Baby Huey. I'm fat. I'm ugly. But if you push me down, I keep coming back. I just keep coming back."
Clinton's knack for self-renewal was evident again last week. As the economy showed signs of steady improvement, he was remaking his political goals to fit the electorate's less anxious mood. He all but boasted that nearly every detail of his controversial health-care reform proposal was negotiable, including its all-important implementation timetable. And he reached deep into enemy territory, stealing Republican rhetoric on crime, defense cuts and values to appeal to independent voters who have been slowest to find their "comfort level" with Clinton. The centrist language -- "We can't renew our country until we realize that governments don't raise children; parents do" -- had Perot voters and "weak" Clinton supporters assembled in Dayton Tuesday night by the White House twisting their hand-held approval meters. "When he talked about crime," said a Clinton adviser, "the dial groups loved it."
But Clinton is under pressure from top aides to discipline himself even further as he tackles his formidable 1994 agenda. His greatest strengths as President -- a desire to address long-ignored problems, an energy level not seen in the Oval Office for years, and an appetite for people, policies and ideas of all kinds -- often make it hard for him to organize his time and sort out his priorities. If he can't keep them straight, the thinking goes, how can the public? A member of Clinton's Cabinet put it this way: "The big challenge for him is to try to stay away from the things he doesn't need to think about. Even though he may have known a lot, and cared a lot, about something as Governor, he doesn't need to now." The No. 2 official at another agency was more pointed: "The President has a very long list of goals. Instead of having three big goals and taking lots of time to fight for them over many months, he has more. Managing such a long list of goals is his big challenge."
Clinton is a complex, highly intense man who does almost everything at full throttle. He watches several movies each week -- the White House refuses to release an exact number -- and reads five or six books at once. He relaxes not by watching a basketball game on TV, or reading, or picking up the telephone, or doing crossword puzzles, but doing all four simultaneously, while worrying an unlit cigar. Clinton fights his schedulers for free time every weekend, but then gets jumpy by midday Sunday and is often working in some fashion by Sunday night. Last August, as he was preparing to leave Washington for his longest vacation in four years, he suddenly got cold feet. Consultant Paul Begala started throwing fastballs. "Mr. President, if you don't go on vacation, the American people are going to think you're weird." Replied Clinton: "I am weird."
But after several attempts at rehabilitation, White House officials realize it isn't easy, or perhaps even wise, to try to change the habits of this driven and eccentrically methodical 47-year-old man. If Clinton's work habits are unorthodox, they are also increasingly successful. "He's inventing a new form of chaos theory that works for him," said an Administration veteran. "People are going to have to get used to the fact that this is a different White House. It may look chaotic from the outside. The people who work there may feel it is chaotic. But if it works one more time, they ought to just lock it in and not fool with it. You've got to just hope that it's only going to blow up once in a while."
It was a measure of Clinton's omnivorous personality that he spent part of last year going to meetings alone. For several months he had no single, full-time, substantive minder, someone who would be with him at all times to keep track of the things people asked him to do. So Clinton did it himself, just as he had as Governor, though the arrangement created a troublesome bottleneck. "No one sat with him on every meeting," said an adviser. "He was the only one who knew when two different people were arguing for the same money."
That helps explain why Clinton had such a difficult start. But the problem was complicated by the fact that Clinton wanted it this way: he liked having 20 people report to him, feeding him volumes of information that he would sit and consider in solitude. He wanted to be his own chief of staff, his own legislative director and his own National Security Adviser. He wanted to be as involved in choosing the dozen presidential scholars coming for lunch as in wrestling with the wording of minor speeches. He was reluctant to let even minor White House proclamations go out without review. He recently barked at an aide who tried to release a statement on ethanol, saying he had to run it by two Midwestern Senators -- personally. "It's almost a throwback to the old days when Presidents did everything themselves," said an official. Added another: "He tries to keep all these balls in the air. He could get away with it in Little Rock. He was smart enough to pull it off in that town. But here? He's not that smart."
Aides say Clinton is aware of the problem but has trouble taking the steps to correct it. Where once he participated in grueling, two- and three-hour briefings on everything from the budget to the rehiring of fired air-traffic controllers, he has begun to realize that he was having, as he put it, "arguments I didn't need to win." He once insisted on sitting through a briefing on maritime reform only to say afterward, "I shouldn't have spent an hour on that." Observed an official: "He does want to be endlessly involved in the minutiae. He sits down, he smiles, he gets engaged and educates himself. And then he walks out of the room and pitches a fit: 'Why did I have to sit through that?' " Said one who minded him for several months: "He'll complain about the schedule, but he's the one who puts the stuff on the schedule in the first place." Advisers must also contend with the most creative and chaotic part of Clinton's personality: his desire to constantly roam the mental landscape of the presidency. His 9:15 a.m. meeting with top aides, ostensibly to discuss his schedule, often devolves into a general discussion about whatever is in the news. Clinton holds forth in these sessions, skipping among four or five subjects with as many as 10 officials. Clinton likes to ask whomever he is with for an opinion about whatever is on his mind, whether that person knows much about it or not. In private Clinton will admit to his weakness, likening it to the habit of a schoolboy who enters a public library to browse the history stacks but then loses himself in mysteries. "He can have a 10-minute meeting in two hours," says an aide.
The bull sessions continue until someone, usually deputy assistant Nancy Hernreich, clears the room. "I don't have time to meet with the President, " says a senior official, who simply walks back to his office when he sees a crowd in the Oval Office. "You could spend a day in there, and some do." Chief of staff Mack McLarty admits that he once had to ask the President to stand up, move away from a group crowded around his desk and into another chair so he could have a "nice, crisp, 10-minute meeting" on schedule.
While Clinton has made accommodations to his staff's wishes, the staff has also learned to adjust to him. "Rather than fighting it," explained an official, "we realized we ought to be figuring out a way to make it work." First staff members placed a four-layered team of personal minders on Clinton to keep him on schedule. Next they moved many of his public events out of the Oval Office and the Roosevelt Room, where he was inclined toward harmful kibitzing, and into more formal settings in the East Room and Rose Garden. "When he stands up," noted an official, "he's more careful about what he says. When he sits down, he just talks more."
Many White House officials insist that in recent weeks they have tried to exclude Clinton from policy discussions until consensus has been reached, or at least glimpsed. Last month Clinton was simply presented with a task-force report on Superfund reauthorization, rather than engaging 20 experts on the matter. He attended a much smaller number of meetings on the 1995 budget than he did on 1994's a year ago, delegating greater authority and suffering many fewer leaks. "We're getting much better at diverting information from him," said an official. But others dispute these claims, saying little has changed. Last week a decision about whether to grant a visa to I.R.A. leader Gerry Adams was bumped up to Clinton when it might easily have been decided at lower levels. "There's been modest improvement, but I wouldn't make too much of it. We have a hard time deciding what not to take to him because he wants to do everything," says a senior official.
The most significant advance in Clinton management came when his aides carved out three hours of "private time" late each afternoon. During this unstructured segment, he can read, write, nap or hit the putting green on the South Lawn -- anything but go to meetings. Clinton aides talk about this invention in much the same way pediatricians talk about behavior incentives for three-year-olds. "It's like a reward at the end of the day," said an official, "for all the disciplined time he's put in. He feels very trapped here, and so you have to find ways to allow him to feel untrapped." Clinton feels so physically isolated at the White House that he slipped out of the compound, accompanied by Secret Service agents but undetected by reporters, five or six times last year. (Hillary Clinton does the same, but more often and usually in disguise.)
Most important, the afternoon free time has given Clinton a chance to do what White House officials call "processing and synthesizing" the data he is constantly gathering on big decisions. Clinton, they say, needs to "internalize" important decisions, putting together policy proposals, ideas, opinion polls, advice from aides, views of outside experts and comments from everyday people in a kind of cerebral Mixmaster. "Early on, no one understood this," says a veteran of Clinton's campaign. "But a whole lot of things have to happen before it becomes his policy. He needs to think that he has been through a thorough analysis. He has to hear the good options, the bad options, the difficult options, the crazy ideas and the traditional ideas, so that by the time he makes his case to the American people, he knows it fully, he's internalized it."
Clinton went through this process last year on the budget, NAFTA and health care, holding as many as 30 meetings with key advisers on each subject. Clinton took copious notes in those sessions, always asked the best question, sometimes taking an opposing view when his advisers had reached consensus. Says a political adviser: "He likes to ask, 'How would this play? What would the arguments be?' Or 'Let's hear the toughest case,' so that he can get a sense of the real-world fight he is going to have on his hands later."
During one discussion with economic advisers last year, Clinton made both the conservative and liberal arguments against his deficit-reduction plan; last fall, when his advisers unanimously agreed to oppose a balanced-budget amendment, Clinton immediately took the opposite view in the meeting. "We took it to him, and he bounced it," said an official. "It proves that he wants to hear both sides." (Later, Clinton agreed to oppose it.)
For Clinton, this kind of give-and-take enables him to make his case to the public more effectively, and he has developed a high confidence in his ability to sell his ideas once he has internalized them. "The speech," said an official, "is the place where he does the processing. It is the defining event. And that's why," she added, "no one can write it for him."
When Clinton fails to go through the lengthy process, it is usually costly. He skipped it on gays in the military, the appointment of Lani Guinier (whose works he did not study until it was too late) and Somalia. But when he takes his time, it works. Last summer, after he announced that he would nominate Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, a beaming Clinton returned to the West Wing and walked into McLarty's office to chat. "That just goes to show that if you give me enough time to make me feel great down here," he said, holding his gut with his hands, "it will work out."
Yet Clinton's method is so cumbersome and time consuming that he cannot afford to internalize every decision. Several officials note that Clinton did not fully embrace NAFTA until September, leaving himself an uphill climb that consumed most of the fall. "It takes a while," said an official. "The danger is that sometime it is going to take too long."
A senior Administration official said that Clinton's "discipline" problem could be overcome if he continues his deep strikes into Republican turf. The official believes the push to the middle, if sustained, will nudge the center of the Republican Party to the right, thereby lessening its appeal. "Just as Ronald Reagan created a coalition by moving into Democratic territory," the official said, "Clinton is moving into Republican territory on crime and values."
But if Clinton's political strategy is changing, his insatiable personality is not. He will always pore over the Agriculture Department's "acreage planted" reports, which hit his desk on Friday evenings. He will always resist trips to Camp David, because it is even more isolated than the White House. And he will always stay up late, even if he has to take an afternoon nap to do so. Last Tuesday, as Clinton came downstairs from the private residence, dressed and ready for his speech, aides noticed that the final draft was wrapped inside a crossword puzzle from the morning paper. Clutching both, he stepped into the waiting limousine. One official turned to another and remarked, "He's going to work on the puzzle during the applause."
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