The President can talk—but can he act?

WASHINGTON—The man can talk.

Any doubts about President Clinton’s ability to hold his own in any conversation should now be ended. By all accounts, his performance in the non-stop discussions at the Tokyo summit of major industrialized countries and his parleys with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and South Korean President Kim Young Sam pleased and impressed his interlocutors.

Clinton’s success in the role of talk-show participant came as no surprise. It is one part of his job—maybe the only one—he has mastered. Put this Chief Executive into any setting where three-by-five cards are barred, where he has to rely on his own understanding of issues and his ability to articulate them, and he will excel.

We saw that in countless television call-in shows during last year’s campaign and, most tellingly, in the Richmond “debate” with President Bush and Ross Perot, where Clinton beguiled and dazzled both the questioners in the live audience and those watching on their sets at home. We saw it again at the Little Rock “economic summit” between Election Day and Inauguration Day. And the same skill was demonstrated for a dozen reporters and columnists invited to the White House for lunch with Clinton and Vice President Gore on the eve of the president’s departure for his just-completed Far East trip.

The Clinton who was on display there on July 2 was a president brimming with confidence in his own ability. The questions were all about policy—not politics—and the answers were full, knowledgeable and subtly nuanced. He displayed a remarkable grasp of factual detail and an ease in discussing alternative economic theories. Clinton could do big-picture generalization, then switch in the next breath to a sensitive depiction of the economic and political forces operating in particular countries.

Listening to Clinton that day, I was reminded of the “presidential candidate test” big-time Democratic contributor June Degnan applied back in the 1970s when a wealthy person could almost single-handedly launch someone into a run for the nomination—or hold him back. Degnan would give each aspirant about a half-hour of her time before deciding whether to make a contribution. “I figure if someone is competent to be president,” she told me, “that in that time, he ought to tell me at lease one thing I haven’t already figured out for myself.”

My certainty was that if Clinton had faced the Degnan standard, he would have cleared the bar with lots of room to spare.

And then I walked back from that luncheon to the Post news room and was forcibly reminded that in government, as elsewhere, intellect is far from everything. There in the office was the report of the investigation the White House had conducted on the horribly mishandled purge of its own travel office.

The report can be commended for candor. But what it revealed was a saga so shoddy, so saturated with petty manipulations, snooping and spying, rampant cronyism and tacky deceits that it made you cringe. It also confirmed an abuse of the FBI’s role—in summoning agents into the situation without even so much as a by-your-leave to the attorney general, and then pressuring them for action—that made you wonder if anyone on that young staff had learned the hard-earned lesson of Watergate. They did not seem to understand that nothing is more dangerous to the Constitution than a political police-state operation directed from the White House.

All the misdeeds were laid out in the report. But nobody was fired. A few reprimands and that was it.

How could that be? How could anyone as surpassingly intelligent as the president I had just left fail to understand that, in this early stage of his administration, it is vital to send a strong message of probity and discipline that cannot be misunderstood by anyone working for him.

That is not a question of knowledge. It is a question of judgment. A question, if you will, of character. And ultimately those qualities will determine the reputation and the record of an administration much more than the I.Q. of its leader.

Of course, it is a good break for the country that in a time when powerful economic, technological and social forces are remaking the national and international landscape, we have a president who is capable of absorbing all the data and analyzing the changes that are taking place.

But that will not suffice. It takes leadership to mobilize the will to cope with those forces. And leadership begins in the circle closest to the talk. Now he must prove he can act—not just with missiles in Baghdad but with woodshed ministrations in his office.