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The 'Phil Donahue' presidency

Monday's conference on youth violence illustrates Clinton's desire for

A town hall meeting. A national debate. A strategy session.

By now, it's part of the White House rhythm: If there's a national crisis, the president's sure to invite the country's best and brightest to talk about it.

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That's exactly what's happened as a result of the Littleton, Colo., shootings, with religious, entertainment, Internet, and even gun-industry leaders expected at a White House confab Monday. The administration calls the event a "strategy session" to shape a national campaign against youth violence. Just last October, the White House hosted a summit on a similar topic: school safety.

But while Mr. Clinton is winning praise for acting quickly, political observers and likely participants caution Americans not to expect too much from this policy powwow.

The president, they say, may be the Phil Donahue of Social Security town-hall meetings, probing pros and cons and encouraging national debate. But getting from engaging talk to meaningful action is quite another matter - especially on a subject as complex and heated as this one, where much of the work to be done is at the local level, anyway.

"The president loves nothing better than having a bunch of people around talking public policy," says Robert Reich, the president's former Labor secretary. "The downside is the potential for substituting words for actions. The public is very cynical about government right now."

Clinton by no means has a lock on White House conferences, commissions, and blue-ribbon panels. Modern-era presidents have all appointed groups to discuss critical national issues such as civil rights, higher education, and clean air and water. But the number of efforts pales in comparison to those of today's professor president, whose first term was preceded by a two-day economics "seminar" on how to bring the US out of recession.

That seminar actually did work its way into policy, finding expression in Clinton's 1993 economic plan, says Mr. Reich, who was present at that Little Rock, Ark., think-fest. But on balance, says Reich, the president's summits and conferences are more successful as a means of educating the public about an issue than as a precursor to passable legislation.

For instance, two high-profile commissions - on Medicare and Social Security reform - disbanded with no consensus, and the outlook for real reform in both those areas is problematic. A promised national debate on affirmative action never really took off, and the president's commission on race crisscrossed the country for a year, producing a report that awaits follow-up with Clinton's own report on race.

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Political analysts don't lay all the blame at the president's feet. For one thing, he is operating with a divided Congress ruled by divided Republicans, and, up until this year of budget surpluses, has been tied up by fiscal constraints. For another, topics like race relations don't lend themselves to easy fixes.

"It's not personal. It's difficult for things to happen when you've got no money and divided government," says George Edwards, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M in College Station. Commenting on Monday's youth conference, he says: "I'm not critical - just be aware of the limitations of what this can accomplish."

Adding to the challenge of Monday's conference is its hasty arrangement - expected participants still hadn't been contacted by the White House as of midweek - as well as the complexity of what's behind youth violence.

Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, says the conference runs the risk of degenerating into a blame game. If people are looking for some "magic bullet," he warns, "it doesn't exist."

Still, Mr. Valenti is ready with ideas to bring. They include the suggestion that the Department of Education fund a course on "what is right and what is wrong," to be taught in preschool, kindergarten, and Grades 1 to 5. Says Valenti, "it would be kind of like being in a church without being in a church."

Bob Delfay, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents gun manufacturers, has some ideas, too. They relate to child-safety locks, gun education, and how to tackle the problem of "straw-man gun purchases."

In his April 30 announcement of the youth-violence conference, Clinton spoke directly to the concerns of people like Valenti. "We should recognize the simple truth that there is no simple, single answer," he said. In speeches and interviews he points to the many sides of the issue, using this as an opportunity to tout his own administration's broad efforts: from the coming V-chip to help parents control their children's television viewing to federal funds to help schools prevent violence or cope with its aftermath.

In an interview with NBC's Katie Couric last month, the president said he and the first lady think of youth violence in the same way they think of teen pregnancy or drunk driving - both positively influenced by a larger, national campaign. "If the American people make up their mind that we're going to do better on this, we'll do better," he said.

Stephen Wayne, a government professor at Georgetown University here, says Monday's session is exactly the kind of thing the president should be doing. Mr. Wayne is less concerned with the specific outcome of the conference and more concerned with the fact that "someone has to generate a national debate."

Clinton, he says, has ties to all the groups he's invited, and the disparity among the participants calls for his Dayton-accord style of forging consensus. This, says Wayne, "is a perfect thing for a president to do."

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