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Chameleon in the White House.

A bubba or not a bubba? That is the question. Throughout the press and punditland, this moniker reappeared in such headlines as NICE HAIRCUT, BUBBA and Pat Buchanan's comment that "Cristophe is not Bubba's barber," to dramatize the gap between Beverly Hills and Little Rock, Cristophe and Joe Sixpack, the "before" Bill Clinton of Hope and the "after" Bill Clinton of Hollywood, the populist candidate and the pretentious, out-of-touch President.

There is no doubt that the haircut story, as stupid and inconsequential as it was, was one of the most damaging of Clinton's early Administration because the press was able to transform it instantly, as Tim Russert of Meet the Press did, into a "metaphor" for everything that's wrong with the White House. And the main thing that's wrong, according to the nation's pundits, is that we don't really know who Bill Clinton is and what he stands for.

It's true that Clinton has been, to put it mildly, less than impressive in recent weeks, what with his flip-flopping over Bosnia, his junior-high-school jokes about Rush Limbaugh and Bob Dole, which he had to take back, and his failure to get a summer jobs program through Congress when, in many cities, a stupefying 48 per cent of black teenagers are out of work.

But The Haircut and "Travelgate" have blown other stories off the pundits' agenda--such stories as Clinton's efforts to reverse Ronald Reagan's firing of unionized air-traffic controllers, which struck a lethal blow at organized labor in the 1980s. Heard any applause for this on the talk shows, or for the Administration plan to halt the development of hazardous-waste incinerators, or for its more aggressive stance in the United Nations on international human-rights violations?

Here's why--and the answers come from the pundits themselves.

Bill Clinton has allowed himself to become a floating signifier, unfixed, indeterminate, arousing a host of anxieties about gender, class, and sexuality. How could a real man--meaning, of course, a heterosexual one--patronize what The McLaughlin Group characterized as "his wife's beautician"? Is he a man, or as Evan Thomas called him, "a wimp"? Is he a regular Joe or a member of the power elite? And how dare he muddy the boundaries between these categories?

It was the class cross-dressing that really got to the press. Here's a guy who, as Juan Williams put it, sold himself as "just plain Bill and here he is with this $200 haircut." Pundits from William Safire to Nina Totenberg to Thomas were beside themselves over Clinton's "going Hollywood" and "being absolutely starstruck," "smitten," as if elites such as themselves are immune from this class-based malady. When the President starts getting cast in the media as if he were a teeny-bopper trying to figure out how to get a date with Luke Perry, you figure he probably needs to work on his image.

How have we gotten to this, just a few months after his euphoric inauguration? Williams hit the nail on the head when he let it slip that "this is so bad, you gotta almost pray for Mike Deaver to show up." These snowballing disasters have happened, in large part, because this White House has either failed or refused to do what all Presidents, especially since Deaver's packaging of Ronald Reagan, must do--and that is manage the press.

This involves, in a nutshell, stroking the press in a variety of ways while also repeating the party line, week in and week out, on a few basic issues. Like it or not, this is what the press is begging for. And this is what Clinton needs to do for, unfortunately, the tail wags the dog here: Shrewd press management is what makes a successful Presidency.

Consider what the Clinton White House has done, and has failed to do. One of the first blunders of this Administration was denying the White House press corps access to a corridor in which they were accustomed to wander freely and pick up scuttlebutt. The pundits were outraged over this, contributing to more unflattering stories and commentary about the President.

The travel-office flap, while tacky in the extreme, is also, as Evan Thomas admitted, really a story about the press. "The press loves that travel office," he revealed. "For years they've been getting all sorts of freebies. You need to get an Oriental rug through customs? The White House travel office did it for you. Now the press is up in arms because their buddies are getting swept away." Thomas is the only journalist I've heard admit this and, not surprisingly, this is not an angle that has gotten much play in the press.

To many journalists, it seems the Clinton people "don't give a damn" about the press, which they've been ignoring in favor of town meetings and the like. As Carl Rowan summed it up, responding to Thomas, "These guys don't know how to hold Thursday briefings, to try to manipulate guys like you." And Rowan added that "they better wake up." For Clinton to turn things around, according to Juan Williams, "He's got to do business with people in the press."

The other thing Clinton needs, according to Gordon Petersen, is "three guys named Guido" who make "offers they can't refuse" to members of Congress who won't go along with his program. Totenberg has emphasized this as well, insisting that the White House staff needs some "tougher, meaner people" or, as Thomas put it, a "head breaker." For months the pundits have been asking for "discipline," for a little intimidation, for toughness, for boundaries to be defined, and, most of all, for a particular version of mainless. They suggest that only a certain kind of man, one with brass knuckles who's ready to swing, can really govern Congress and the press. It is depressing to consider that they might be right.

Clinton's Zelig-like qualities, which got him elected, are killing him as President, because the press can't deal with chameleons. Press routines are so ossified into good-bad, black-white categoies, and so dependent on the symbolic event--such as the infamous haircut--that if Clinton doesn't take control of his image and his relations with the press, he will indeed be moving back to Little Rock in 1,300 days. This is a sorry commentary on the twisted symbiosis between the White House and the press, for it ensures that news management--the enemy of a truly free press and of an informed citizenry--is the only option left for a President.
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Title Annotation:Pundit Watch
Author:Douglas, Susan
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:1076
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