It is unfortunate that President Clinton's ceremonial introduction of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a distinguished Supreme Court appointee, ended with a jarring response to a television reporter's showboating question. But c'est la vie; and the issue itself is worth a closer look.
Brit Hume of ABC News asked, knowing already that it was true, whether the handling of recent White House appointments, including that of Judge Ginsburg, hadn't evidenced "a certain zigzag quality in the decisionmaking process," and invited the president to "disabuse us of any notion we might have along those lines," knowing perfectly well that Clinton couldn't.
There was rough justice in Clinton's response: "I have long since given up the thought that I could disabuse some of you turning any substantive decision into anything but a political process."
Hume knew when he asked that the long search for a successor to Justice Byron R. White had been even more public and ragged, at times, than most such "political processes," though certainly not unprecedented. (Not long ago, there was the ragged process Ronald Reagan ran through when the Robert Bork confirmation failed and one of Ruth Ginsburg's colleagues of the same name _ no relation _ came and went overnight.) There was the well-publicized tender of the White seat to Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, who refused it, followed by approaches to such figures as Dick Riley, Bruce Babbitt and Judge Stephen Breyer.
What I think is less well understood is that these "zigzags" flow from the president's confiding nature, which would be a virtue in some settings. Like most of us, President Clinton finds it hard to make up his mind on hard matters. The difficulty isn't lessened by the fact that his deliberative processes are complex.
Bismarck long ago warned that lawmaking and sausage making (to which the presidential appointive process should probably be added) are activities of which it is unwise, and certainly unappetizing, to know too much. Clinton, however, likes to stuff sausages in broad daylight. And like all good technicians, he is apt to accompany the stuffing with a guileless running commentary ("Well, usually, I use the hotter kind of sage, but maybe this time we'll add the cooler kind . . ."). Reporters usually welcome this kind of kibitzing, like knowing and writing about what's on the president's mind, and accuse presidents of secretiveness if they are denied it. But when there's a lot of it, they will accuse the president of zigzagging.
President Truman, who is zooming upward in esteem but was thought of as hopelessly inept during his time in office ("to err is Truman," said the wags) could make awesome decisions about the atomic bomb and Korea as serenely as he might select a pair of socks. Perhaps a relatively more simple-minded president than Bill Clinton is preferable, one who tends not to see all sides of a question. But if we thought Clinton were making snap decisions, we would make an issue of that too.
The president's observation that we, the press, tend to turn "substantive decision" into "political process" is undeniable. And the dominance of television isn't improving matters. If you compare Brit Hume's style with that of H.V. Kaltenborn, to say nothing of Ernest K. Lindley or Frank Kent or Walter Lippmann, you will see a decisive shift of journalistic emphasis in the direction of process. TV needs pictures and drama. Judge Ruth Ginsburg, for instance, may know all there is to know about collateral estoppel, and other subtle legal matters, but don't expect them to be expounded on the evening news.
My own guess is that when he snapped at Brit Hume, Clinton was deeply moved by what Judge Ginsburg had been saying about the role of women, and her mother and granddaughter. It isn't the press' job to have a sense of occasion, but Hume's transition was as abrupt as that, on television, from a funeral to a beer ad, and was grossly mistimed. In answering it, the president yielded to an impatience most of us feel much of the time with this chattering, tasteless age.
Brit Hume happened to be the nearest dog and he got kicked.
Washington Post Writers Group