Dismissed by the pundits as a lame duck just three weeks ago, President Bill Clinton commanded their unanimous respect this week to reign as Issue 1. "The president is back!" cheered Steve Roberts (CNN's Late Edition). Clinton spun himself as a loving husband by getting "caught" on videotape dancing with wife, Hillary, on a Caribbean beach. (The pundits were split on whether Clinton deliberately exposed himself, Hillary, and Chelsea to the photographers' lenses. Fox News Sunday's Juan Williams insisted that Hillary didn't know about the cameras, because "no woman wants to be photographed in a bathing suit.") Clinton also luxuriated in the good news of the budget surplus and introduced his plans to expand Medicare and support child care. "It doesn't get any better than this for a president," said Gloria Borger (PBS's Washington Week in Review).
Although the president's two new modest social programs were recognized as "warmed-over Dick Morris" (Mark Shields, PBS's NewsHour With Jim Lehrer), all saluted Clinton for the "terrific" politics. The president's "cradle to grave" proposals (Pat Buchanan, The McLaughlin Group) were likely to paralyze the Republicans, because nobody wants to go on record as being against child care (Paul Gigot, NewsHour). Unless the Republicans slip out of the sleeper hold, Clinton's two initiatives will serve as "wedge issues" to separate the two parties in the minds of voters for the 1998 election (Tony Blankley, Late Edition).
"They're scared stiff of Bill Clinton," said Shields of the Republicans. One Republican, Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, appeared more stupid than brave when he walked into the Democrats' trap on CBS's Face the Nation. Gramm compared Medicare to a sinking Titanic that shouldn't accept any new people, to which Clinton loyalists George Stephanopoulos (ABC's This Week) and Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala (Face the Nation) responded with the administration's line. Medicare isn't the Titanic, they said, it's a "lifeboat" for millions of Americans.
The budget surplus, which is providing Clinton with excellent cover for his new social programs (Gigot; David Gergen, The McLaughlin Group), was declared illusory and temporary by This Week's two conservatives, who failed to note these seemingly obvious truths last week when the surplus was Issue 1. George Will stated without dissent that the surplus is an accounting trick: If the balance sheet were to include the trust funds (Social Security, etc.), the real deficit would stand at about $140 billion. Meanwhile, Bill Kristol predicted (fervently hoped?) that the Asian flu would soon strike the United States, evaporate the surplus, and vanquish the Clinton juggernaut in the process.
Iranian President Mohammed Khatami's televised overture to the United States earned Issue 2 honors, though this unfamiliar topic strained the pundits' omniscience. Tony Blankley described it as the "one glimmer of light coming out of the Middle East for America." Al Hunt (CNN's Capital Gang) asked, "Is Khatami the Gorbachev of the Middle East?"
The Indonesian economic crisis (Issue 3) was a bit of a stumper too. Only Thomas Friedman (Washington Week in Review) came to the studio prepared, cribbing from his next day's New York Times column: According to a popular one-liner in Jakarta, the ruling Suharto family, which owns toll roads, banks, and other businesses, "[has] everything--but a sense of shame." Friedman also previewed the idea that Southeast Asia's economic troubles might cause the indigenous populations of Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia to attack the ethnic Chinese who dominate commerce in those countries. How might China respond to such an ethnic war? he asked.
Hey, Kids! The new official name of ABC's Sunday show is This Week With Sam and Cokie.Reports that the show will soon change its name to This WeekWith Milk and Cookies, broadcast Bugs Bunny cartoons between magic tricks, and host a studio audience of Cub Scouts and Brownies are unconfirmed as "Pundit Central" goes to press.
Who's Minding the Show? The closing credits of Friday's Washington Week in Review listed Elizabeth Arnold, Jeffrey Birnbaum, David Broder, and Ronald Brownstein as the guests. The night's guests were Robin Wright, Gloria Borger, Thomas Friedman, and Alan Murray.
One of Washington's Favorite Lies:Late Edition's Frank Sesno cited his desire to spend more time with his wife and children as one of the reasons he had decided to step down as host of the show.
Punditus Interruptus, Week 4: Al Hunt stepped on Robert Novak twice this week while Novak held his fire, making Hunt the interruption leader, 4-2.
-- Jack Shafer