Recent news stories on former president Clinton and President Bush serve to contrast their styles and needs. Clinton can't seem to get enough media attention, and Bush appears content to escape the spotlight. The differences may give us some insight into their respective approaches to the presidency and, in the case of Mr. Bush, reasons for optimism.
Clinton obviously craves the limelight, but it's more than that. He needs adulation. He needs armies of admirers, swarms of sycophants, worlds of worshippers, pockets of panderers, throngs of toadies, gaggles of genuflectors, reams of respecters, enclaves of empathizers, flocks of fawners.
Couldn't you just feel his ecstasy when he was being mobbed outside his new office in Harlem, N.Y., where he said, "I feel like I'm home here"? It was apparently the closest he could get to recapturing that presidential feeling.
Clinton's post-presidential behavior puts the lie to the common myth that he was one of the most popular presidents in history. His spinmeisters have continually tried to confuse job approval with personal popularity. Sure, the people approved of the economy Clinton presided over, but they didn't approve of him.
What difference does it make, you ask? It makes all the difference in the world to Clinton. It is the reason he was so reluctant to get off the stage on Bush's inaugural day. It's the reason he is constantly in the news today trying to rehabilitate himself.
Why else would he, as a member of that most elite of elites, the former presidents' club, stoop to call the Geraldo Rivera show and plead his case about the Rich pardon? Why would he write an op-ed piece in the New York Times, desperately trying to justify this unjustifiable pardon?
Clinton will not get out of the news until he is assured that he is universally loved and that history will record him as one of the nation's greatest presidents. Ironically, the more he tries to influence both, the less likely they are to materialize. New polls show that despite all his tinkering, Clinton's popularity is taking a dive.
What about George Bush? The media have done their best to paint him as a hapless moron. For his first few weeks in office they laid off ever so slightly, but they're back now, and it may get ugly.
The Washington Post did a profile of Bush on Monday, again raising the question of his intellectual prowess. They pointed to the scandalous fact that he and his advisers used the term "routine" to describe the weekend air strikes against Iraq.
"Bush," wrote the Post, "was hewing to his administration's talking points." So what! If talking points are evidence of an absence of mental acuity, then Bill Clinton is the dumbest president in history. There's no contest. He and his programmed mafia couldn't make it through a day without talking points. It got to be embarrassing at times.
The difference with Clinton's talking points was that they were almost always used for propaganda purposes -- to convey something other than the truth. If Bush is using talking points at all, it's to keep his team on message and to communicate clearly about his various implementations of policy.
The Post also implied that Bush, when questioned, was unclear about the reasons he ordered the air strikes against Saddam Hussein -- as if this is rocket science, anyway (pun intended). Well, at least reasonable people aren't questioning whether Bush has some ulterior, personal motive to bomb Iraq. People trust the president again -- and that's refreshing.
The Post criticized Bush for not having submitted to a press conference. But do you blame him? They are obviously just lying in wait for more ammunition to prove that he's Dick Cheney's clueless understudy.
I think Bush, conspicuously unlike Clinton, is demonstrating an inner peace and security. Like Ronald Reagan, he knows that the media are not his primary constituency. Nor are they his allies. No matter what he does -- short of renouncing conservatism wholesale and admitting that he has the lowest presidential IQ since Reagan -- he will not win their favor.
The media, like Clinton, want to be the center of attention. Unhappily for them, Bush, unlike Clinton, is not going to accommodate them. That Bush isn't preoccupied with media approval may be disconcerting to them, but it should be encouraging to the rest of us. Finally, a president who is not hostage to public opinion polls and who is intent on implementing his agenda -- because he truly believes in it.