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Clinton Sets a Different Pace During Visit to Washington

By David Von Drehle
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

The moment was rich with historical importance: In the Oval Office, President Bush guided President-elect Clinton to the straight-backed chairs beside the fireplace. America's most powerful men settled into the nation's most prestigious seats.

As they prepared to discuss the woes and dangers of the planet, a door quietly opened. A waiter padded softly across the thick carpet, bearing coffee.

Flash! Clinton was on his feet, clasping hands and trading small talk with the surprised, tray-toting man. Not even the rarefied air of the Oval Office can stop the RoboCandidate.

Clinton, as America has learned, is a virtuoso in the art of campaign shmoozing, a Horowitz of the handshake. But what does that mean for a president? Under Bush, the country has been encouraged to think such gifts are irrelevant to running the country; Bush built a wall between "campaign mode" and "governing mode".

On his triumphal visit to Washington this week, Clinton tore down the wall.

Strolling and chatting his way along Georgia Avenue in northern Washington on Wednesday, a wireless microphone booming his remarks to scores of reporters on flatbed trucks and to C-SPAN viewers across the country, Clinton gave a glimpse of the future. It is a future in which campaign-style events might become tools to shape and sell national policy.

Jawboning about his legislative agenda outside an auto parts store, pausing in a fast-food joint to praise a general who does not like his plan to permit gays in the military, Clinton showed how the new tactics and technologies of the `92 campaign may become instruments of government.

If ordinary people have become sufficiently media savvy to ask the basic questions of the day -- and this year proved they have -- then why not use a crowd at McDonald's to get the daily message across, minus the buffer of the White House briefing room? If Minicams and wireless microphones make it possible to give a policy speech in the guise of a neighborhood saunter, then by all means, get out among the people.

On Georgia Avenue, Clinton cooed over a little girl in a beauty queen's sash and tiara. He scarfed scallops from a box of Chinese food offered by a neighborhood restaurant owner. He posed in a Washington Redskins cap. It looked like an typical day in, say, the New Hampshire primary.

Except that along the way, in unscripted exchanges with shopkeepers and homeowners, Clinton laid out a sketchy, but ambitious, commitment to pass legislation through the new Congress in support of small businesses. "I'm gonna give Congress a bill that, if passed, would dramatically increase the amount of capital available to small business," he promised one store owner.

To another, he talked about a revitalized Small Business Administration and described a network of inner-city banks that would invest in minority areas where credit is tight. He put a timeline on the idea: "In the next two years," he said, "I hope we'll be setting up a community development bank in every community that needs one."

If the plans seemed sketchy, they were no more vague than the plans he has mentioned in his formal press conferences since the election. The difference was how well the whole thing played. While reviews of Clinton's formal statements have been mixed so far, he got nothing but raves for his walk among the common people.

One minute, the president-elect was talking policy; the next minute he was grabbing the hand of a shoe-repair shop owner and saying: "Great lookin' place you got here! I tell you, I run through shoes faster `n anybody you know."

The same technique was at work Thursday morning. Jogging past a McDonald's, Clinton decided to duck in for a cup of decaf. While chatting with his fellow patrons, he was able to mouth a few platitudes about bipartisanship, react to the latest story on the search of his passport files, express his admiration for Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin L. Powell, and talk about his policy for the homeless.

When Clinton met local school board president David Hall on Georgia Avenue, he grabbed Hall by the arm, reminisced about an earlier meeting years ago, then said smoothly: "I want you to call me."

Just call ol' Bill at the White House! Such scenes recall the pioneering spirit of the `92 campaign. New media -- like open-line talk shows, televised town hall meetings, the Clinton-Gore bus trips, the Phil Donahue-style presidential debate -- stripped away the intermediaries, roughed up the photo opportunities and threw the whole process open to questions from the general public.