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Bill Clinton Charms the Camera

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If Bill Clinton is as skilled at governing as he is at greeting, happy days are here again.

He was stunningly unpretentious and something to behold on C-SPAN, warmly, smilingly, good-ol’-boyishly hosting hundreds of ordinary people at the White House while knowing that his bid to have Zoe Baird confirmed as attorney general was collapsing.

The juxtaposition of these televised events last Thursday--Baird facing an increasingly cool if not hostile Senate Judiciary Committee and Clinton facing increasingly admiring constituents in a reception line with Vice President Al Gore and, at times, their wives--was fascinating.

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In the former, Baird was the one being grilled, but it was Clinton whose reputation was at stake more than hers. Yet in the latter, one would not have guessed merely from observing the celebratory new President that his thoughts were perhaps elsewhere or that his jubilant facade masked profound regret and even embarrassment over the fate of Baird. Break out the Emmy. He was simply extraordinary.

Next to First Spouse Hillary, the camera may be Clinton’s closest partner.

On the screen, whether captured from afar or close up, this man is good, really, really good. Really, really, really good.

Surely more than George Bush, and even more than Ronald Reagan--who delivered a heck of a speech but faltered without a script--Clinton may turn out to be the consummate television President. As the inaugural affirmed, he warms to the camera, and is self-assured, at ease and nearly always in command when on TV.

Although his critics will call that being slick, a better word for Clinton the TV performer is smooth.

Assessing a shrewd career politician, one is never sure where sincerity and spontaneity end and affectation and rehearsed behavior begin. But occasionally there are clues. Notice, for example, how Clinton often pauses and bites his lip before answering a reporter’s question, as if thoughtfully weighing the answer he likely already has fixed in his mind. Very nice. And he knows how to manipulate a friendly camera when he sees one.

Yet even when captured by TV in obvious off-the-cuff moments, it tends only to humanize him--as when he asked for a bathroom break at Thursday’s open house, for example, or when he angrily shouted outside Blair House (“Will you hurry up? They’re waiting for us!”) when his daughter, Chelsea, apparently dawdled prior to the Clintons’ White House visit with the departing Bushes on Wednesday morning.

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That is an enormous political asset that Bush lacked. Even further, Clinton’s overall TV fluency (although he is no great public speaker) serves both him and the public well in an age when Presidents so frequently speak to America, and sometimes even the rest of the world, through a camera. As the nation’s first President who actually grew up with television, Clinton appears instinctively to understand the medium that is now serving him so well.

Thursday’s TV-wired handshaking marathon turned somewhat sour when not everyone designated to meet the new First and Second Couples was able to get into the White House. Yet this mutual welcoming, before a big, warming fire in the diplomatic reception room, was remarkable for the snatches of folksy dialogue that the microphones picked up between the First Executive and the people who elected him.

Symbolizing the sharply contrasting styles of the outgoing and incoming Presidents, the day produced the kind of populist, chatty informality that one could not envision ever having resonated through the George Bush White House. Many of the visitors spoke to Clinton as if they’d known him all of their lives.

* “You can keep your tax cut, if you keep your commitment to gays.”

“It’s a deal.”

* “We’re so proud you of you.”

“Hey, thank you, man.”

* “Please remember AIDS awareness.”

“I will. I’ve worked hard for it.”

* “I hope you do a good job. Don’t let it go to your head.”

“I won’t.”

* “Remember me?”

“You’re from?”

“Nebraska. I met you when you were there.”

* “I’m Cathy. I spell it with a ‘C.’ ”

“Good.”

Why good? Who cared? Good ol’ boys don’t necessarily make good sense as often as they make good television.

When an elderly woman in a wheelchair came through the line, Clinton bent down almost to his knees and looked her squarely in the eyes. “Thank you for being here today.”

It was a 10 on television’s Richter Scale.

However, it’s White House communications director George Stephanopoulos who is feeling the earthquake. In the aftermath of the embattled Baird’s withdrawal as attorney general-designate, Stephanopoulos has been holding CNN-televised briefings with reporters that are tumultuous.

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Whether because Stephanopoulos often seems vague or evasive or because of longstanding Republican charges that they have been soft on Clinton, the news media have been rocking the President’s chief spokesman with aggressive questions about Baird’s nomination and what Clinton knew in advance about her hiring of illegal immigrants.

Even Clinton would have difficulty finessing this onslaught. And lacking his boss’s TV acuity, Stephanopoulos at times seems almost dazed as he occupies the epicenter, taking his shots.

Perhaps if he asked for a bathroom break. . . .

“REAL NEWS.” That’s the title of KCOP-TV Channel 13’s born-again 10 p.m. weekday newscast that resembles no other newscast in Los Angeles.

Freed from that antique device, the anchor desk, holdover anchor Ross Becker and newcomer Vicki Liviakis roam a sprawling, high-tech set in a format (refreshingly devoid of anchor/anchor and anchor/reporter phony chitchat) that limits their intrusiveness, and occasionally they even do stories outside the building. Movie critic Gary Franklin and other contributors also stand. And bold new graphics and pulsating music provide energy.

Yet, despite the distinctive cosmetics and somewhat longer stories, the redesigned newscast essentially covered the same breaking news as its competitors in its first week on the air, and with much the same superficiality.

Although it’s much too early for a definitive judgment on such an ambitious long-range project, there is no compelling reason yet to chose Channel 13’s “Real News” over any other station’s news.

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