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Political Wrap with Shields & Gigot

January 20, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Mark, how would you describe the totality of the day as they were just talking?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, the totality of the day I think is the best question, Jim. Like Haynes Johnson I too love parades. And I took the metro, the Washington metro, a wonderful subway system, downtown to soak in the parade this afternoon. And like Steve Ambrose, I’d love to see great ideas and noble vision and all the rest of it. If a President, Bill Clinton or anybody else, proposed a metro system today, he’d immediately be, oh, we can’t do it, we can’t afford it, we can’t build it.

JIM LEHRER: Big government.

MARK SHIELDS: Big government. He, I mean, our expectations are so low, our green eye shade mentality about balancing the budget is so strong, so I too, like the others, like Haynes and Doris was touched by the racial reconciliation aspect of the President. I think that was his strongest suit. I think he does it in a persuasive and compelling way. But if you’re looking for that phrase to etch in marble on the walls of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library, I didn’t find it there today. I’m still looking for it.

JIM LEHRER: But is that the right, search, Paul?

PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: I don’t think it’s the right search to make if after watching Bill Clinton for four years, I mean, this was another tactical political speech in a tactical political presidency. It was not rhetorically strong, but I wonder why we ever thought it would be. There was not any vision but where has there been a vision in the last couple of years? He’s been a counter puncher. And what I saw in this speech was a President who’s trying to maneuver and survive in an era that’s fundamentally skeptical of the tradition of which he comes, which is a Democratic Party as the big government party. He’s trying to take a lot of the things that the–the stigmas that Republicans have used against Democrats, the welfare party, the tax-and-spend party, and get rid of them. He’s trying to say, look, that’s not us anymore.

And you reposition the party to be something else, and to have credibility again so that then he can go ahead and begin to use government incrementally. And that’s what I thought this was about. This was about sounding conservative themes to give him credibility then to be able to maneuver with a Republican Congress.

JIM LEHRER: Does that make sense to you, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I just didn’t see that much in it. I guess I missed that as the part of a blueprint legislatively.

PAUL GIGOT: Not a blueprint. I’m talking about thematically.

JIM LEHRER: A concept to approach the Republican Congress and reflect our political times.

MARK SHIELDS: I think Steve Ambrose has put his finger on it when he said let’s put petty politics and bickering behind us; let’s get that on and then start dealing with legislative issues, rather than the politics of scandal, which have bedeviled this town and the Speaker for the past couple of weeks, and the next turn, of course, is the White House’s, but I–I didn’t get a sense, Jim. See, I think it was a tactical campaign. I think most presidential campaigns are tactical. The 1960 campaign from which came the memorable ’61 inaugural speech was a very tactical campaign. They debated the defending of Kimoi and Matsu, two eminently forgettable islands off of China. I mean, it was not big issues and big ideas in that campaign. A big speech did come out of that. I think that was the hope of Bill Clinton’s supporters today, that even though the campaign had been a tactical campaign, which he won against Bob Dole, that today there would be in Richard Nixon’s felicitous phrase, the lift of a driving dream. And I think that’s what has alluded him and alluded his listeners.

JIM LEHRER: Paul, how do you think this speech went down with the Republican leadership, looking at it both from a standpoint of getting something done and getting done what they want done?

PAUL GIGOT: I think the Republican leadership is probably happy with the rhetoric of the speech and will view it as a sign that he does want to deal with them with this, but I think they’re going to say, wait a minute, we’ve seen this before. He did it before in 1996 and really took our issues away. I think that some of the shrewder Republicans will say, well, the President didn’t give us a lot of things to shoot at here. He told the American public, I agree with you that we need a smaller government, I agree with you we need to show discipline in Washington. This is a new Democratic Party. I think he’s making himself a more formidable political opponent over the next year in dealing with the major question we’re going to deal with, which is the budget.

JIM LEHRER: What about this–the bickering question, the point that Steve Ambrose made, that no matter what is said here today, these things are still there, and he just recited them, Filegate, Paula Jones, the vote tomorrow? The House of Representatives tomorrow is going to vote to reprimand the Speaker of the House and fine him $300,000.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s true, Jim, and it’s interesting. There isn’t that sense right now of personal comity, of trust, of affection across party lines. I know of no House Democrats who personally like Newt Gingrich, the Speaker. I know of very few Republicans who like Bill Clinton. They say they don’t know him; he’s only been here four years. But there isn’t that easy relationship that there was between Danny Rostenkowski as the powerful Democratic chairman of the Ways & Means Committee and a Republican President, George Bush, or even–or even the sort of sociability between a Democratic Speaker like Tip O’Neill and a Republican conservative like Ronald Reagan. That’s missing, and it’s deep, the acrimony, the bitterness are real, they’re divisive, and they’re not going away.

JIM LEHRER: So, Paul, when Chief Justice Rehnquist said, good luck to the President, he meant it, right?

PAUL GIGOT: I think he did. Notice he left the stage right away.


PAUL GIGOT: Look, the personal comity between Dan Rostenkowski and George Bush certainly didn’t do George Bush any good. I mean, George Mitchell was there taking his measure on the budget and doing him in. There’s a political incentive for both sides to get along. I agree that there’s a large amount of political calculation I think to the President, saying, let’s put all of this bickering and other–

JIM LEHRER: As Steve said.

PAUL GIGOT: –yeah–behind us because, of course, now, you know, we fought over Medicare in the campaign, now let’s come together. Well, there are a lot of Republicans who remember that campaign.

JIM LEHRER: But to the folks who aren’t as sophisticated as all of us sitting here in Washington–

PAUL GIGOT: Including just about all the country.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. It includes everybody. You think, wait a minute, wait a minute, boys and girls, this is inaugural day, we had all this wonderful thing happen here, and you’re saying, it’s meaningless, it didn’t mean a thing, that we had the Speaker of the House up there on the platform with the President, and everybody smiling, the bands are playing, we had a parade, it doesn’t mean a thing–tomorrow, it’s back to–to that awful stuff?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think today did mean something. I think it is wonderful. I think it is celebration. I think that it counts for the fact why the President is enjoying the highest poll ratings in his career; that people have a sense of positive optimism toward him, toward his presidency, toward the country. But Jim, when it comes down to the fighting over power, I do want to make one point where I think Bill Clinton is best is when it’s an emergency. I mean, the moment of his presidency that was the most defining in a positive sense was after Oklahoma City. I mean, that’s when he was truly the national healing force, the commander in chief in the best sense, the magistrate of the land. And when he spoke to black ministers in Tennessee in 1993, the same thing, but in staged set pieces it doesn’t work as well.

JIM LEHRER: But isn’t that true of all Presidents, Paul, that when they are confronted with something, whether it’s international or domestic, that’s when it’s really on the line–


JIM LEHRER: And in some ways, it’s the easiest time to be a President. PAUL GIGOT: Well, it’s the easiest time–

JIM LEHRER: The historians are probably saying, no, no, no, no over there, but–

PAUL GIGOT: I remember a Democratic pollster telling me in 1991, after George Bush had won the Gulf War, that George Bush was above politics. We didn’t even want to criticize him because he was held in that esteem because he had performed so well in that role. Now, a year later, it was a different story. I think you’ve heard the President sometimes himself in private moments muse that he would prefer to have been President in a more difficult era. He has the burden of placid times, and he would like to be able to rise to the stature of an FDR, but these are the times he has, and he has to deal with them.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you both and don’t go away.

Now some last words from this inaugural day. They are those of the inaugural poet, Miller Williams of Arkansas, from the poet he wrote at President Clinton’s invitation especially for the occasion. Here is an excerpt.

MILLER WILLIAMS, Inaugural Poet: But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how? Except in the minds of those who will call it now, the children, the children. And how does our garden grow? With waving hands, oh rarely in a row, and flowering faces and brambles that we can no longer allow. Who were many people coming together cannot become one people falling apart, who dreamed for every child an even chance cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not, whose law was never so much at the hand as the head, cannot let chaos make its way to the heart. Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child, cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.

We know what we have done and what we have said, how we have grown degree by slow degree, believing ourselves for all we have tried to become, just and compassionate, equal, able, and free. All this in the hands of children, eyes already set on a land we never can visit. It isn’t there yet but looking through their eyes we can see what our long gift to them may come to be. If we can truly remember, they will not forget.

JIM LEHRER: Still to come on the NewsHour tonight, some thoughts about Paul Tsongas plus the other news of the day, including the legacy of writer James Dickey.