A Return to His Starring Role : Some Strategists Say the President's Hollywood Ways Could Hurt Him When It Comes to the Average Joe


It was two years ago that President Clinton suddenly cut back his contacts with Hollywood stars for fear that they were staining his image as an ordinary Arkansan with an unusual sympathy for the average guy.

That was then.

In the latest sign that Clinton's star-schmoozing habit has returned at full force, the President and his family depart for a weekend in Martha's Vineyard to attend the Saturday wedding of actors Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson, and circulate in the aureole of some of Hollywood's most radiant celebrities. Names like Tom Hanks will be there, along with Kelsey Grammer and other cast members from the late lamented "Cheers," which starred Danson.

This is Clinton's third trip as President to the Vineyard, and not his only recent encounter with entertainment bigs. In August, Clinton went to the Teton range of Wyoming to vacation in the style of average American families--then on his first social outing headed for the ranch of Harrison Ford.

The White House maintains that this trip signifies nothing more than friendship, since Steenburgen, the daughter of a North Little Rock freight-train conductor, worked for the Clinton campaign in 1992 as well as for earlier gubernatorial races. "It doesn't have anything to do with Hollywood--it has everything to do with wanting to be with a good friend," said a White House representative.

But it comes at a time when, with reelection around the corner, some White House aides have been trying to figure out ways to highlight their President's ties to the average man. To do that, they've got to overcome GOP-nurtured notions of Clinton as a creature of $200 haircuts and fancy dinner companions.

So this gesture makes some allies uneasy.

One Democratic strategist who had a top role in the 1992 campaign said Clinton's friendship with Steenburgen would probably make the outing acceptable to Americans. Yet as a general proposition, "He ought to stick to Yellowstone, Arkansas basketball and the Firecracker 500. He ought to forget Martha's Vineyard."

There's no question that Clinton has been cultivating this friendship for some time. The actress, who won a best supporting actress Oscar in 1980 for "Melvin and Howard," has spent a night at the White House and even had the Clintons throw her a birthday party.

Clinton seems to have something of a brotherly concern for Steenburgen, 42. Danson, the womanizing bartender in "Cheers," has acknowledged that Clinton took him aside and warned him to treat Steenburgen right.

In one sign that Clinton's trips to Martha's Vineyard have become a serious habit, this visit has stirred nary a ripple among the locals. "The reaction has been close to zero," said a local newspaperman. "It's like he belongs here now."

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