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Promises, Promises--Aides Hope for Less Talk : Oratory: Clinton advisers, worried about perception of broken pledges, want focus on what’s being done, not what has been said.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

As they look beyond Inauguration Day, senior advisers to President-elect Bill Clinton worry that the daily diet of news coverage focusing on broken promises and abandoned pledges could become a recurrent theme for the Administration to come.

The problem, the aides contend, lies in one of Clinton’s most basic political traits: Simply put, he talks too much.

And now that he is about to move into the Oval Office, where every word will be placed under the microscope and scrutinized for nuance and shading, aides fret that the same mastery of political rhetoric that has gotten Clinton this far could quickly begin to undermine him.

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So far, in their view, that has not happened. “Voters are not going to turn us out of office if we reduce the White House staff by 23.5% instead of 25%,” said one senior Clinton adviser, referring to a campaign pledge that now seems unlikely to be fulfilled at any level. Recent polls showing that voters believe Clinton has abandoned campaign pledges, but give him high marks anyway, provide some support for that view.

Once Clinton takes office and begins making decisions, aides argue, the attention of the press and public will begin to focus on what he is doing, rather than what he has said in the past. For that reason, “I think all of us are going to be relieved to have the transition end and move on to the inaugural and the Administration,” Clinton communications director George Stephanopoulos said.

Nonetheless, Clinton advisers--and sometimes even Clinton, himself--concede that the way he goes about expressing himself has potential for creating serious difficulties for his Administration. That will be particularly true if voters are unhappy with him for other reasons--such as a failure to improve the economy--and if he continues to make unfulfilled promises once he has gone from candidate to President.

During the campaign, one of Clinton’s worst problems was the perception many voters had that he was slick and evasive. His aides worked constantly to persuade him to give short, terse answers to combat that view. They were overjoyed, for example, when Clinton, in the second presidential debate, gave a flat-out “no” when asked if he supported a constitutional amendment to impose term limits on Congress.

With the campaign over, Clinton’s old habits seemed to have returned. But aides note they have trouble persuading him to change. After all, his style has served him well so far. “He’s 46 years old and about to become President of the United States,” one senior aide wryly observed.

Clinton likes to please his audiences. He often uses glowing rhetoric to describe his programs in ways that make them sound far grander than they are. He also likes to explore, out loud, the ramifications of every policy question put before him. He does not like--ever--to admit publicly to having been wrong. The results are sometimes tortuously complicated mixed messages that leave different groups with varied impressions of what Clinton has said.

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Critics have long said that Clinton speaks the way he does as part of a deliberate attempt to mislead people. His “Slick Willie” nickname aptly reflects his attempt to be all things to all people, they say.

Clinton’s friends, by contrast, say his complex sentences reflect a thoughtful mind that resists churning out simple, sound-bite answers.

But even they concede the dangers of the approach. “If you give all sides and an analysis” of every question, people “can read that as equivocation, or taking all sides, trying to be all things to all people, or being slick,” said a longtime Clinton friend and senior campaign adviser. “It is very dangerous.”

At times, Clinton seems aware of that danger. “You know, sometimes people hear only half the message, and I regret that if that’s what happened,” Clinton said in a press conference Thursday. His words referred to his changed policy toward Haitian refugees, but could have equally well covered a host of other issues.

For example, in the third presidential debate, Clinton was asked whether he would pledge not to raise taxes on middle-class Americans. He mentioned the new programs he would like to enact and said:

“I will not raise taxes on the middle class to pay for these programs. If the money does not come in there to pay for these programs, we will cut other government spending, or we will slow down the phase-in of the programs. I am not going to raise taxes on the middle class to pay for these programs.”

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As Clinton probably knew and perhaps intended, most voters watching the debate paid most attention to the words “I will not raise taxes on the middle class.” But when reporters pressed the point the next day, his spokesmen put their emphasis on the caveat “for these programs.” Clinton would not raise middle-class taxes to pay for his new programs, they said, but might do so to reduce the overall deficit if that were necessary. It now appears likely to be.

Clinton’s stand on Haitian refugees provides another example. He first addressed the issue during a call-in session on NBC’s “Today” program last June. Asked what he would do about the Haitians, he said: “I wouldn’t return the Haitian boat people, the immigrants, until some shred of democracy was restored there. I think those people are political refugees.” Returning immigrants is a valid step “only if you believe they are economic refugees,” Clinton said.

Many Haitians took that statement--and subsequent pronouncements--as a blanket declaration that all Haitian immigrants were political refugees deserving of asylum in the United States. But in announcing Thursday that he would, for now, keep intact the policy of returning Haitian boats, Clinton put a very different gloss on his words.

Asked if he regretted that his words had led to a massive stockpiling of boats along Haiti’s coast, Clinton said, “I said many times, from the spring all the way through November, that that would be a mistake because people who didn’t qualify as refugees still should not be here.”

That answer displays another aspect of Clinton’s style: Like most successful politicians, he almost never admits error on matters large or small.

He is the sort of person who, when chided during a recent television interview about eating “junk food” at McDonald’s responded: “No, no. I don’t necessarily consider McDonald’s junk food. You know, they have chicken sandwiches, they have salads . . . I don’t plead guilty to that.”

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And sometimes, as he insists that his words have been misinterpreted, Clinton’s fervor leads him to denials of clear truths.

Thursday, a reporter asked Clinton when his economic plan will be ready, noting that “we were originally led to believe that you’d have an outline to Congress even before the inauguration.”

“Well, I don’t know who led you to believe that, but I’m the only one who’s authorized to talk about that,” Clinton replied.

In fact, Clinton said on Nov. 19 that “I would attempt to close the loops on the details of our (economic) policy in advance of being sworn in.”

In Clinton’s eyes, the fact that he said he would attempt to do so makes the statement clearly different from a promise that he would do so, but the distinction is one that few press accounts of his remark emphasized.

Back in Arkansas, most voters have grown used to all this. Clinton aides can only hope that Americans at large will grow accustomed as well. “It’s a long-range goal of Clinton’s communications strategy,” the senior adviser said.

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