Packaging of the President : How much did Clinton’s image account for the recent beating his party took at the polls? : ON THE EDGE, The Clinton Presidency <i> By Elizabeth Drew</i> ; <i> (Simon & Schuster: $24; 462 pp.)</i>

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<i> Ellen Akins is the author of "Little Woman," "World Like a Knife" and "Public Life."</i>

The publicity materials that accompanied the reviewer’s copy of “On the Edge” touted Elizabeth Drew’s “unparalleled access” to the Clinton White House. To which I can only say: Poor woman. How much more of this grossly overexposed Administration, with its all-too-public trials and errors, can anyone bear without becoming one more percentage point in one more poll of disaffected citizens?

Is the President overexposed?

Or should he be out there, always on top of the story, dominating the news before it dominates him?

What should he say?

In what tone?

In which suit?

And how will it play?

The question of image interests Drew almost as much as it does the President’s circle of advisers, as well as the rest of us ordinary citizens who couldn’t help but wonder how much the President’s image accounted for the beating his party took at the polls late week. “If Clinton lost,” Drew remarks of a crucial congressional vote, “he would be seen as powerless, treated as powerless, and therefore powerless.” And the same goes for his success with us, the people, whose moment-to-moment, minutely measured opinions and feelings seem to figure in every decision coming out of the White House.


How we react to what we see affects what the President does, what Congress does, and what they do to each other and to us. This endless tracking of policy to ratings--this perpetual campaign--is nothing new; but never has it been so extreme and overt. So it’s no wonder that Drew sees fit to comment on the President’s appearance and performance in theatrical terms--his “convincingness,” his lip-biting, his bulk in a baggy suit. It matters.

That it shouldn’t matter as much as it does is something Drew knows too, and she proves an able guide through the looking glass, showing us, on one side, how this presidency plays and, on the other, how it works. Or, all too often, doesn’t work--not, mind you, for lack of trying. These people are indefatigable, none more than the President himself, whose driving pace and seemingly inexhaustible energy can work to his disadvantage, contributing to the overcrowding, overreaching and overdoing that doom some of his best efforts. To get the business at hand into anything resembling chronological order seems to be beyond this President and his staff, but Drew somehow manages. Her book begins with the transition, then moves from one initiative to the next--often one crisis to the next--covering Clinton’s first 18 months in office.

It’s a tricky business, not just because, as she amply demonstrates, the Clinton Presidency is still a most malleable thing and any summary may quickly become beside the point, but also because everyone who has something to say--all those “experienced Washington observers” and “administration officials” and “important senators” and “persons who attended the meeting”--probably has a reason for saying it. In an author’s note, Drew says that she kept asking herself, “Why is this person telling me this?” and screened the information she received for motives. I’m guessing she was successful. Her book seems tough and fair and multifaceted enough that if somebody comes off well--as, for instance, George Stephanopoulos and Al Gore do--you’ll probably understand why rather than suspect Drew of having been snowed.

As to that other risk--of the passing of her subject matter’s moment before her book even appears--it’s well managed here, too, in part because, regardless of what’s happened since, this is just plain interesting stuff, from the least little remark--(her description of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as “charismatically challenged,” for example, to the big event (the budget battle, NAFTA, eruptions in Somalia, Bosnia and Russia). More than that, though, this book goes beyond Clinton and his immediate milieu to show us something about the character and shape of the modern presidency.

Much to his eventual woe, Clinton initially surrounded himself with young, often inexperienced outsiders, but a few of the people close to him (and accessible to Drew) were seasoned enough Washingtonians to know that there was something different about this Administration, and that the differences didn’t all originate with Clinton. The intense struggles within Congress and between Congress and the White House reveal one important change, a weakening of the President’s power in relation to the legislature; the President has little to work with in the way of sanctions, inducements or party discipline, and without a huge and passionate following, he hasn’t much leverage with representatives who have their own followings to satisfy.

Another change becomes apparent as we witness Clinton’s style of governing. Lloyd Bentsen, an old hand, begins to put his finger on it when he comments, “This is the meetingest crowd I’ve ever seen.” This President wants to hear from everyone. An adviser tells Drew, “You can go to him and say, ‘So-and-so thinks this’ and ‘So-and-so thinks that’ and go down the list, and he’ll say, ‘Let’s have them all in and talk about it.’ ” Robert Reich describes this tendency toward summits and policy by discussion in generational terms. He and his colleagues in the Administration are, for the most part, “products of the Sixties generation,” and “the revolts of the Sixties were very much in reaction to the hierarchical society we inherited.” So, exasperated though he is with the unwieldy process, he is, he says, “much more comfortable making decisions sitting around a table with assistants than sitting at a desk and checking a box.”

That’s nice, but when we get a look at how this approach was applied to health care reform--with a task force of 500 health care experts broken into 34 subgroups subjected to a torturous slate of meetings (one of which lasted 22 hours) and finally coming up with a 1,342-page bill of such complexity that nobody even knew where to begin to talk about it--we start to see the pitfalls.


Ultimately it could be argued that Bill Clinton has extended this approach to the whole nation, that his plebiscitary governing, closely calibrated to the public mood, is his way of getting all of us, the people, into the dialogue. “But a poll-driven, consultant-ridden Presidency (carries) risks,” as Drew points out. “Leadership could be preempted by the consensus of the moment. There might not be any leadership at all.” If President Clinton is going to listen to everyone, he might as well listen to Elizabeth Drew; after all, there’s still time for him to rise above us.