Bald spin-doctor is a tonic for Clinton: The President's new press chief has won over the media and is restoring the White House image

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The Independent Online
'A FEW more fat, old, bald men wouldn't hurt,' was the advice of Marlin Fitzwater when asked last month how a floundering White House might get its act together. George Bush's affable and much- missed press secretary would be the first to admit the prescription was a self-protrait. Bill Clinton, though, was listening. A day or two later he made David Gergen his counsellor. He has hardly looked back.

It may be a coincidence, but calamities have been replaced by at least the semblance of success. Congressional committees are suddenly approving Clinton proposals, from cutting the deficit and campaign finance reform to community service as a means for impecunious college students to pay tuition fees. The President's first Supreme Court nominee seems set for confirmation by acclaim.

To call Mr Gergen bald, old and fat is a mite unfair. Plump, middle-aged and thinning on top would be more accurate. But a carping Washington establishment is delighted. Its advice has been heeded. The man summoned to the colours is one of their own. No Arkansas outsider he; Mr Gergen is a 24-carat 'inside-the-Beltway' wise man, at 51 the embodiment of solid maturity and stalwart of a thousand television talkshows.

His previous employment in the Republican White House of Nixon, Ford and Reagan did raise eyebrows. But Mr Gergen dislikes labels. He is, he says, merely a whisker to the right of centre. But for a President who was being branded a closet liberal, his arrival was a deliberate symbol of the sprint back to the middle ground.

Not every omen was auspicious. Mr Gergen uncannily duplicates many of Mr Clinton's own faults. His workstyle is undisciplined and his schedule invariably runs late. But he knows how the system works. If his appointment is a success, its results will be a more professional White House and, just possibly, an ability to win over a handful of Republican moderates on Capitol Hill in crucial votes. But there has already been one visible and important dividend: improved relations with the press.

A first consequence of the shake-up was the removal of the hapless George Stephanopoulos as communications director. White House briefings are no longer siege warfare. A President who shunned press conferences last week held two in 48 hours and even had his tormentors in for a Sunday evening barbecue. To habitues, the fingerprints of Mr Gergen, spin-doctor supreme, were everywhere.

And in the West Wing, the staff revolution continues. Yesterday brought word of the demotion of the 33-year-old political director Rahm Emmanuel, whose main achievement, like Mr Stephanopoulos, had been to offend those he was supposed to win over. Whether David Gergen had anything to do with this change is unknown. But score another one for the fat, old, bald men.