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His Loose Lips Get a Presidential Seal : Politics: Suddenly, one of the chattiest men to occupy the White House is quiet as a mouse. It's not easy for Bill Clinton--or the press.

August 25, 1994|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Waves of Cubans were fleeing to Florida, his health and crime bills were barely dodging doom, but the only question President Clinton would touch at his ritual morning jog earlier this week had to do with the injured Achilles tendon of Vice President Al Gore.

"He's better," Clinton allowed grudgingly--then clammed up tight.

In a month of stunning surprises from Washington, this one surely ranks among them: Bill Clinton, maybe the chattiest man ever to occupy the Oval Office, is suddenly rationing his conversation like Calvin (Silent Cal) Coolidge.

In the past two weeks, he's done none of the photo opportunities that he has long used for run-on lectures on topics from the federal deficit to defense conversion. He's taken reporters' questions on only two occasions, and is threatening to hold to the new tack indefinitely.

Urging the new policy was new Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, who, adopting a view long held by the Washington punditocracy, argued that Clinton has been stepping on his daily message and hurting his presidential image with his endless rope-line stridulations. The common view at the White House is now that Clinton has been both overexposed and underexposed, and that he needs to save his wind for occasions that he can better control.

The new policy has spawned a guessing game in Washington on how long the onetime professor will be able to overcome the habit of a lifetime and keep his yap shut. Some people wonder what kind of internal tensions the new discipline must be building in a man who has so long used popping off as an emotional release.

"This won't last," predicted Michael K. Deaver, who built his image-making plan for President Ronald Reagan around the same principle. Noting that Clinton has tried and failed on earlier moments to stick to the program, Deaver ventured that such silence would be "constitutionally impossible" for the Arkansan.

Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar who worked for four Presidents in speech writing and other roles, agreed. "He knows intellectually that this has to be done. . . . But this habit is genetically programmed. We can expect that there will be some falling off."

One White House aide acknowledged that keeping mum was no easy task for Clinton, and conjectured that others around the President would have to pick up the conversational slack. "This is not a man who is going to go without," this official said.

*

The Oval Office's sepulchral silence has made life a bit harder for the wire-service and television reporters who have come to rely on Clinton's daily effusions to make a living. In a more gregarious incarnation, Clinton would frequently take questions from reporters on two or three occasions in a single day, sometimes rattling on for four minutes to answer a single query.

Now reporters who used to entreat press aides to hold news conferences are balefully asking if Clinton would allow more photo-ops--occasions in which Presidents were available to be photographed but rarely responded to questions. Pre-Clinton, the moments were considered of scant value.

In the absence of meatier fare, one wire service correspondent was threatening earlier this week to write a story about a White House secretary's trip to the dentist. "It's grim," he said.

Lori Santos, a White House reporter with United Press International, said the August chat drought has not yet left the wire service corps to spend their time playing pinochle and filling out expense reports. But the news flow "is a little lighter," she allowed.

The new, more coy Clinton has had a very real impact on the network television correspondents, who like to have fresh footage of the President--preferably answering one of their questions--every day. Now they are resorting to shots of the President ignoring them, much like the footage they regularly used when Reagan was skipper.

Earlier this week, Clinton used a Rose Garden appearance as an opportunity to lobby for the crime bill. But he took no questions, and when NBC's Jim Miklaszewski shouted a query about Cuba, Clinton continued strolling away.

In the evening broadcast, all three networks used the clip, because it was all they had.

"It must be killing him inside not to speak," Miklaszewski said. "You can actually see him break stride, because he wants to answer. But then he's been going on."

Miklaszewski says that Clinton has been more successful at keeping mum than any President he's seen--so far, anyway. Indeed, all recent Presidents have shared to a greater or lesser extent this desire to target their pronouncements.

*

George Bush began his term as a chatty guy, but by the end he struggled to reduce his verbal output. John F. Kennedy feared that the coming of television would diminish the dignity of the office and strictly limited his appearances.

Clinton's loquacity has become one of the distinguishing characteristics of his Adminstration. But it has gotten him repeatedly into trouble, including several times this year.

Last month, his think-aloud musings at a National Governors Assn. convention in Boston brought protests from Democrats that he seemed to be backing away from his previous demand that Congress provide health insurance to all Americans in its legislation.

And there was the now-notorious MTV interview in which Clinton acknowledged his preference for briefs over boxer shorts--a shared intimacy that has brought mockery from even such usual allies as Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "We don't know what the (foreign) policy is, but we know what kind of underwear he wears," Hamilton grumbled recently.

Clinton's Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, who have so many reasons to be glum these days, are jubilant at Clinton's new resolve. "So many people have wanted this," said one senior Democratic House aide. "If he sticks to this, it'll really help."

And if he doesn't, he added, "well, I don't think people will be all that surprised."

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