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The explainer and the un-explainer-in-chief

Bill Clinton's gift --  and his curse -- is that  he could explain (almost) anything. And that reminds me of the leadership strengths — and weaknesses — of his Baby Boomer successor. By Howard Fineman.
A contrast in styles, for better or worse.
A contrast in styles, for better or worse.Charles Dharapak / Ap

I first saw Bill Clinton perform at a National Governors Conference 22 years ago in Nashville. I was NEWSWEEK's brand new political correspondent; Clinton was in his second term as "boy governor" of Arkansas. He was carrying Chelsea in his arms as we all played tourist, filing respectfully through Andrew Jackson's Hermitage. I pointed to Clinton and told my wife that I thought he'd be president some day.

Unfortunately, for me and the magazine, I didn't commit that guess to print in the spring of 1984. But it didn't take a seer to understand his talent.

Well, I saw Clinton at another governors association meeting the other day, and I had to agree when a Democrat whispered to me, "You know, if the Constitution allowed it, that guy could get elected again."

Only Elvis could mesmerize a ballroom full of politicians with a lecture on the economics of cooking fast-food French fries. But that's precisely what he did at the governors' gathering here. His riff ("They could cook 'em in olive oil, of course, which would be healthy, but it would be prohibitively expensive....") was part of an hour-long, impromptu aria on the health-care crisis facing the country.

Deeply (almost comically) up to speed  on details of the issue, he effortlessly wove the disparate strands — from insurance-industry profits to the chemistry of fat digestion to the history of the Department of Agriculture crop programs — into a  comprehensible whole.

That was his gift and his curse: he could explain (almost) anything.

Clinton's performance reminded me of the leadership strengths — and weaknesses — of his Baby Boomer successor. George W. Bush is in choppy water over the Dubai ports issue. And he is so, in large part, because, unlike Clinton, he is a man of bullet points, not explanations; of slogans, not systems; of certitude, not complexity.

I've known Bush for a long time and I know that he distrusts talk, at least public talk. He'd rather make a decision — give an order — and then go out and attack a felled tree with a chain saw. He is confident to the point of arrogance when he makes a "tough call." But he objects by nature to the demand that he explain his reasoning and/or the process behind it.

Why he is this way, I don't quite know. In part, perhaps, it's a sense of entitlement that comes from being a fourth-generation national leader (counting his great-grandfather, Samuel Bush, an Ohio industrialist who founded the National Manufacturers' Association).

Another reason is his father's political saga: Junior hated watching his dad's painfully compulsive need to explain himself in public and vowed: not me. Then there's West Texas, where Bush learned his social Tough Guy ways on the playgrounds of Sam Houston Elementary and San Jacinton Junior High, and then later at the Midland Petroleum Club. The ethic out there is to distrust talkers. You shake hands.

Finally, there is Bush's tongue-tied-in-public nature. He's unsure of himself without a simple script.

It's almost as if Microsoft had George W. Bush in mind when they invented Power Point.

The man-of-few-words approach has its virtues, and they matched the moment in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and, for the most part, since. Bush's deep belief in his vision of global democratization, coupled with the eloquence of speeches crafted for state occasions by Michael Gerson, carried the day. Dazed and confused and searching for old verities after the terrorist attacks, I think most Americans found some comfort in Bush the Growling Cowboy.

That time has passed, though. The main reason of course, is that the simple, black-and-white solutions that the president sketched for us in the "war on terror" haven't materialized. Most Americans now consider the war in Iraq to have been a mistake, one that has made us less secure here in what is now called "the homeland." They see his Manichean clarity not as a comfort, but as a danger — because it underestimates the complexity of the real world. There are many more moving parts to consider in the world than the simple clockwork Bush had described.

So after years of saying how fundamentally simple and stark things were — Good Guys and Bad Guys, Good and Evil, freedom and slavery, light and darkness — the president has suddenly had to concede, or propose, that the Dubai port deal is all about the complexities of the real world, of globalized commerce, of leases and not ownership, of friendly Middle Easterners versus enemy Middle Easterners, of friends who recognize Israel, and friends who don't — and won't, perhaps ever.

The Administration will take 45 days to try to describe why the Dubai deal is a good thing for the country. But it'll take an army of explainers to do the trick — and you won't hear the president do it in a prime-time speech.

Suddenly, it's a complicated, gray world out there: the kind that a Bill Clinton would feel at home in, and could explain.