Hair Force One - 28 May 1993
Oh dear, how I wish that I could talk about some big, impressive topic, worthy of the world's only superpower, a descriptive phrase, a tag that proud Americans are learning to rue, because it means that everything that's going awry, anywhere in the world, has some ambassador scurrying to the White House and saying, what are you going to do about it?
Well, I hesitated – just in time – to pick some big theme that a professor might choose because I remembered that time and again, in the history of this country anyway, what makes or breaks an administration, or rather what causes the first crack, is only rarely the grand error of policy that historians fasten on and record in stone. It's rather seemingly trivial episodes, like Lyndon Johnson pulling his dog up by its ears, leaving a vivid but quite false impression of cruelty. It's Jimmy Carter addressing the nation in a cardigan, in the hope of seeming folksy. Long ago, it was Richard Nixon, outfitting the White House security men in costumes right out of the Prisoner of Zenda. It was an impressive presidential candidate, the governor of Utah, who went into the White House to talk to President Johnson about his policy on Vietnam. The man came out and said, he brainwashed me. That was the end of his presidential campaign. Who wants a brainwashed president?
And so, if you were to ask me, how come Mr Clinton, who only a couple of months ago was thought to be doing a fine job by well over 60% of the people, why has he tobogganed so swiftly down a slippery slope and now finds 46% of Americans against him, with 44% still holding. I should say it's not some great policy blunder, not even the backing and filling, mostly backing, on Bosnia. It's something that sounds like an episode of the Perry Mason series, the case of the $200 haircut. A simple story. Mr Clinton had been in Los Angeles, on his countrywide campaign, to sell to the people his budget plan. He's in trouble with it, not only with the Republicans, but with quite a few of his own party, Democrats, who helped get him elected. His downright promise is that his plan will call for one dollar to be saved from spending for every dollar imposed for taxes. But the congressional accounting office, which is the most non-partisan, disinterested authority you can find in such matters, says not so. It has looked over the president's figures and says the ratio is more like for every dollar cut from spending, just over three dollars will go for new taxes.
Well, Mr Clinton had given his all, speechifying to a sympathetic crowd and pressing the eager flesh in Los Angeles and then he was on his way home, sitting in his plane, Air Force One, as the presidential plane is always called, on the tarmac at Los Angeles airport. Now I'd better say that wherever the president's plane is to land, the control tower holds all other landings for half an hour before Air Force One touches down and when the presidential plane is about to leave, all other plane departures are held back and incoming planes are stacked till he's airborne. Mr Clinton surely learned about this rule his first week in office, but inside his plane, purring away on the tarmac, Mr Clinton decided, or perhaps he'd previously made a date, to have his hair cut. I'd better say there is an official barber always in residence in the White House. However, three thousand miles away, the president had a great disposition come over him to have his wonderful head of steel wool hair trimmed.
He summoned a barber from Beverly Hills, a very upscale performer, who would probably wince at being called anything less grand than a hair stylist. His name, the fatal touch this, is Kristoff. Not Kristoff Columbus or Christopher Smith, just Kristoff. The president rewarded him with a $200 fee, $50 more than Kristoff charges a first-time customer. When he was finished, the controllers could alert the planes that had been circling an the planes on the ground waiting to take off that their time had come. No doubt the captains apologised to their passengers, both idling on the ground and whining in circles in the air. In all, the delays amounted to 45 minutes or more for everybody, which doesn't sound too long, but aviation fuel, being the most luxurious item around, and turnaround fees being what they are and salaries figured on time aloft, all in all, it would be kinder not to calculate the accumulated cost for a president obsessed with a thrifty budget.
This thumping gaffe was manna from heaven for reporters bored with the regulation Clinton speech, urging the people once again to back the people's candidate, Bill Clinton and that struck the sour note. If Ronald Reagan had spent $200 on a haircut, there's have been a little sniffing and head-shaking from the Democrats and the press, lamenting the remaining Hollywood strain in him. But Bill Clinton came to us as a modestly self-advertised boy from Arkansas, the common man, no Eastern prep school, country club, Yaley like George Herbert Walker Bush, who by the way, would no more have his hair styled than he would colour his fingernails. But the good old, or rather good young boy, who drops into McDonalds in a T-shirt, Reeboks, a baseball cap, worn indoors even when he helps the ordinary folk on their daily tours of the White House. And now this state of the art Huckleberry Finn, he holds up the huge traffic of the nation's third-busiest airport and summons a fancy Hollywood stylist with one name, to give him a rinse, clip and set for $200.
You could have guessed that the first man in the United States to be televised in a barber's chair was Ross Perot. He could have had one here, rasped the Texas sparrow, for $12. It took less than 24 hours for the papers and the telly to say all this and more. I've noticed that the people's response, reaction, is a better word, depends a good deal on their party allegiance. Old Democrats tend to say, it's a trivial matter, silly mistake, not worth going on about. If, by the way, it had been Nixon, they would have been outraged. Republicans responded, as you'd guess, with glee and they didn't have time to play up their mock horror. Next day there was another, bigger airplane gaffe.
Suddenly it was announced the White House had fired an entire staff. The people who make the travel arrangements for the press, the media, who accompany the President on every trip, everywhere. Naturally the press wanted to know why their personal, so to speak, travel agency had been sacked. They'd hardly put the question before the White House announced that the regular agency had been replaced with a new one and, just to compound the blunder, the new team was composed of old Clinton cronies, including a relative, who'd wanted the job ever since the inauguration, which they helped to stage. This connection was of course aired at once. Whereupon a blushing White House spokesman hastily explained the first firing. There was evidence, he said, not only of incompetence, but quite possibly wrongdoing. So the FBI had been called in by the White House and was beginning "a criminal investigation".
Here he goes again. The White House, by inviolable custom, if not by rule, does not ever call in the FBI. If it has any trouble of this sort, the president calls the attorney general, who is the boss of the FBI and the attorney general dispatches to its duty the FBI, which is the enforcement arm of the Department of Justice, which sometimes is busy investigating the White House.The attorney general was furious. Incidentally, this is as good a place as any, to remind you that the FBI is not a national police force, there isn't one. It can operate only when crimes or criminals cross state borders and even then, must often give precedence to the local or the state police.
Anyway this stumblebum chapter in the White House week has not closed as I talk. The cronyism charge was true enough to have the president repent almost immediately, of appointing his old pals. They were fired and five of the old gang brought back. Stay tuned. Comes midweek and it emerges that last week the chairman of the Democratic party had faxed invitations all over town offering, to lobbyists mainly, a weekend retreat with high administration officials, climaxed by breakfast with the president. Price tag $15,000 for two. This was a fundraising gimmick and one that campaigner Clinton had condemned as a shabby practice when the Republicans did it. Result, hurried conversations with the president and a quick White House statement, breakfast with the President would not take place, so as "to avoid any appearance of impropriety".
At the end of this horrendous week one new thing struck me. Last year, we were told by journalists who knew Mr Clinton and by old aides of his, that ideology and promises aside, he was a superb politician.
What is a good politician? He's a man who knows what he wants, he has a keen intuition of how much Congress will let him have, he knows when to introduce a policy, a change and when not, he has a fine sense of timing, he knows when to compromise and when not, he senses in advance how his public behaviour will appear next day. All this private cunning, all these qualities were typical of the best American politician of the past 50, or say post-Roosevelt years – Lyndon B Johnson. This week the surprising reflection was that Bill Clinton, apart from his ideals, his ferocious hard work, his sincerity, which have nothing to do with political skill, he appears as an inept politician. And when the breakfast and the travel hassle and perhaps Bosnia, are forgotten, I'm afraid the battered image of the honest Arkansas boy gone Hollywood will remain. Just for a blow-dried hairdo, he left us, just for a Hollywood rinse, to show off.
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