Facebook Twitter



President Clinton's complaint that the media are preoccupied with the political process rather than substantive subjects is a familiar beef; we have heard this from every recent occupant of the White House.

Actually, the gripe has some validity.After listening teary-eyed to Supreme Court nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg's touching acceptance speech, the president faced the White House press corps. His temper flared when ABC's Brit Hume immediately asked for an explanation of the "zig-zag quality" of his nomination search.

Clinton was genuinely outraged.

"I have long since given up the thought that I could disabuse some of you of turning any substantive decision into anything but a political process," he snapped.

Everyone knows that choosing a Supreme Court justice involves a process as political as it is substantive. But the president felt cheated of the triumphant moment he thought he had earned by the harsh reminder of the odd way he got there.

Indeed, the media have always been fascinated by the way things get done; the interaction between people is more fun to chronicle than the tedious data and detail of policy formation.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Illuminating the reasoning and maneuvering behind White House actions is a useful exercise, even if occasionally overdone.

But what really irks Clinton about the media's focus on his thinking processes is that while he's made his fair share of good decisions, his circuitous style of making them drives people nuts.

The impression is getting about that he is indecisive, a sort of modern-day Adlai Stevenson so intellectually engaged in studying all sides of a question he cannot make a choice.

This conclusion is not just based on the running commentary from the White House heralding first one Supreme Court candidate and then another in dizzying succession. It includes the stumbling effort to find an acceptable attorney general, the steady march toward inter-vention in Bosnia followed by an equally steady march away, and promised health-care reforms that sound different every time they are discussed.

One interpretation of the oscillating Clinton presidency is that this is simply a staff problem. The theory is that if the staff would stop talking about what he is thinking until he has made a decision the public wouldn't see so much bobbing and weaving.

The trouble here is that the staff reflects the president himself. Underlings wouldn't be blabbing if he cracked the whip against it. When he thinks he is ready for a decision, he says it's OK to pass the word. Then new information comes in and he changes his mind. Or, alternatively, he likes to float ideas and names and see what happens.

As a deliberate policy, airing the decisionmaking process in public has some merit. It is not only nice and democratic but it allows time for both supporters and opponents to make their cases before it's too late. It helps avoid catastrophes.

Something like that happened in the 87-day Supreme Court search, which he neglected for so long that he finally had to make his decision under considerable pressure to get it over with. The outcome was admirable, but the process was messy.

Yet there is a happy medium somewhere between feeding the press useful speculation and such jarring White House cacophony that the president looks undisciplined and vacillating. Clinton has not yet found it.