Clinton Posts Renewal As Theme for Presidency
BILL CLINTON sent clear echoes of the model of his youth, John Kennedy, this week.
But his position at the very beginning of his presidency was much like that of two other presidents this century, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
Each ousted a sitting president who was perceived as too passive for times that demanded change.
Both parallels augur well for President Clinton. As different as Roosevelt and Mr. Reagan were in their politics, both succeeded in changing the direction of their governments, Roosevelt radically, Reagan by increments.
Mr. Clinton painted only broadly his direction. The week in which he assumed the mantle has been focused more on the sheer celebration of national unity.
The relentless grandeur, glamour, and historic symbolism of the week all accrue to Clinton's presidential stature, buffering him a bit more from disapproval, giving him a bit more credibility to spend on political persuasion.
His next challenge, discussed regularly in policy circles, is to focus his message on two or three clear and important priorities.
He did not do that in his inaugural address, but he did set out some themes. He told the nation that some sacrifice and a greater sense of responsibility would be necessary to bring renewal in the changed world.
"We know we have to face hard truths and take strong steps. But we have not done so. Instead, we have drifted, and that drifting has eroded our resources, fractured our economy, and shaken our confidence," he told the nation. @BODYTEXT =
IKE the inaugural ad-dresses of Roosevelt and Reagan, Clinton's was a jeremiad, says Craig Allen Smith, an expert on presidential speeches at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The jeremiad describes a people with a special covenant who have strayed from it and need to return to the fold.
The philosophy reflected in Clinton's speech was communitarian in its emphasis - an outlook that differs from both liberalism, based on individual and group rights, and conservative individualism. Communitarian views, growing in influence recently especially among Democrats rethinking liberalism, stress shared values and social responsibilities as a counterweight to individual rights. "It is time to break the bad habit of expecting something for nothing, from our government or from each other. Let us tak e more responsibility, not only for ourselves and our families but for our communities and our country," he said.
These themes have been echoed throughout Clinton's campaign for the presidency and give it an overarching rationale, says Dr. Smith, that neither George Bush nor Jimmy Carter ever evoked. The rationale helps make sense of the many programs and initiatives on a president's agenda and sort out priorities.
The model that Clinton's own aides cite for a tightly focused presidential agenda is Reagan's first term.
Clinton's inaugural speech was far more vague and general about the direction of his presidency - evoking change, sacrifice, and responsibility - than Reagan's inaugural speech in 1980. Reagan spelled out clearly in the first minutes in office that he wanted to shrink federal power in favor of the states and that he felt taxes were too high. Those themes closely matched the actual intiatives he proposed in the early months.
Clinton borrowed some style and phrasing from Kennedy this week. In his speech, he added the Kennedy phrase "my fellow Americans" apparently at the last minute. He used it where it did not appear in the text released an hour before delivery. His call for sacrifice and especially his appeal for national service echoed similar notes in Kennedy's inaugural. Even the commissioning of Maya Angelou as poet laureate of the inauguration invoked Kennedy's use of Robert Frost.
But Clinton's inaugural symbolism could not have been more different from Kennedy's. The Kennedy style was formal; he insisted that men wear top hats at his swearing in.
Clinton's inaugural style was pure popular entertainment and maximum inclusion. While his celebrations packed at least as much glitz and Hollywood star power as Reagan's, he sent some of the populist messages that the early Carter mastered.
If Clinton's week of inauguration is any gauge of his presidency, he will not be hard to get to know. He talks a lot, and he is constantly expressing his feelings. By the time he actually made his inaugural speech, he had given so many climactic, prime-time televised speeches this week that it was just one more.
"He talks all the time," notes Jeffrey Tulis, a University of Texas political scientist who studies presidential rhetoric. "He gave a lot of inaugural speeches. My gut feeling is that this is unprecedented."