Killer rabbits, Hollywood haircuts

Little things often mean a lot. Killer rabbits, repeated head bumpings on the door of Air Force One and now, $200 haircuts.

People’s lives in general and our elected leaders specifically are often judged by seemingly small, insignificant and yes, sometimes silly things. In 1968, George Romney would have lost the GOP presidential nomination to Richard Nixon anyway, but he neither helped his effort nor his desire to ever be taken seriously again when he suggested that American generals had “brainwashed” him during a tour of Vietnam about the military effort in South East Asia.

Jody Powell has cited the “killer rabbit” incident as the critical point after which Washington and the American people never took President Carter seriously again.

Gerald Ford may have been the most star-crossed president in American history as a result of literally stumbling performances on stairs, innumerable head bumpings in the White House pool and hatchway pratfalls on Air Force One. Don’t think this image of buffoonery didn’t contribute to his loss to Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Inner-directed men like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan had an aura, a presence, and authority and yes, an innate judgment that allowed them to avoid the silliness that befell Presidents Ford and Carter and now is befalling Bill Clinton. Someone once said that a leader has a physical, intellectual and moral presence. Clearly Presidents Kennedy and Reagan possessed such endowments and were seen as leaders. Mr. Clinton, as a result of his problems, is not seen as a leader today.

But history is repeating itself in more than one way. The American people correctly perceived Messrs. Ford and Carter to be weak men and they may now be arriving at the same judgment about Bill Clinton.

Ironically, compounding this president’s problem is Hillary Rod-ham Clinton. Like Presidents Carter and Ford, Mr. Clinton is married to a strong-willed and intelligent woman with ideas of her own. Unfortunately for the current occupant of the Oval Office and like Messrs. Ford and Carter, a dynamic is being created that sets him up for a “lose lose” situation.

If Hillary looks good, Bill looks bad. If Hillary looks bad, Bill looks worse. Lest we forget, buttons were mass-produced in 1976 and 1980 that proclaimed “Betty’s Husband for President” and “Rosalyn’s Husband for President.” This perception only encouraged the American people to think of those presidents as weak men. Whatever else happens between now and 1996, we’ll see buttons stating “Hillary’s Husband for President” and, even worse for Mr. Clinton, “Hillary for President.”

Presidents who are seen as weak or vacillating or silly people – as Messrs. Ford and Carter can attest to – also invite gratuitous comments and criticisms. Johnny Carson and Jay Leno notwithstanding, (Have you seen Mr. Leno’s savaging of the president lately? And the roars of laughter this has met with?) already Mr. Clinton is reading columns and editorials suggesting ever so politely – from friends yet – on how he can “turn it around.” The next step in six months will be academicians and editorial writers opining that the job of president is just too big for one man.

The tendency of all the president’s men in these situations is to lash out at the media, sometimes not too intelligently. To say Paul Begala and James Carville have been appalling in interviews is an under-statement. And their overreactions are only exacerbating Mr. Clinton’s problem, because they’re taking what should be something minor and makes it bigger.

For example, Mr. Begala’s comments in The Washington Post last Friday to the effect that there are larger issues facing America than Bill Clinton’s $200 haircut misses the point. Of course there are, but much of what we judge people about and especially our presidents is anecdotal and not always of earthshaking import. Nonetheless, this is how life often works, and telling The Post to “get a life” is not particularly constructive nor helpful for future relations.

The problem for Mr. Clinton is, like the problems that beset Presidents Ford and Carter, that if he is perceived as weak and silly, then so too are his legislative programs and political views that then may end up endangering the Democratic Party as a whole. Bill Clinton is falling, and the only question now is whether he can get up.

Craig Shirley, an adviser to George Bush from 1985 to 1987, is president of a Washington-based political consulting firm.



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