Clinton hopes for end to gaffes with new messenger: President appoints an old Republican hand to run his public relations and repair his dented image

SINCE President Bill Clinton made the announcement on Saturday, Washington, which should have been dozing through the long, Memorial Day weekend, has been in a spin. Not only is George Stephanopoulos gone, or at least booted sideways, but the man brought in to replace him, David Gergen, is a former Republican hand.

Like every White House shake-up, this one excites, because it amounts to a self- acknowledgement that all is not well with the administration. This time the interest lies in the choice of Mr Gergen. Most recently editor of the weekly US News and World Report and regular television pundit, he served three Republican presidents, including Ronald Reagan. Is he now to help Mr Clinton undo all that he helped his former masters put together?

It is not as if Mr Gergen, 51, will have a minor role. With the title of counsellor to the president, he replaces Mr Stephanopoulos as director of communications and will have responsibility for repairing the President's dented popular image. In particular, he will be watching to avert any unnecessary gaffes of the dollars 200-haircut and travel office variety. And he will report not to Chief of Staff, Thomas McClarty, but to Mr Clinton directly.

While many Democrats are asking why someone in their own party could not have been chosen, Mr Clinton hopes the appointment will serve several purposes at once. Mr Gergen does at least have considerable experience of the White House, albeit from a Republican angle. And he is simply older, and perhaps a little wiser, than 32-year- old Mr Stephanopoulos, who will remain as a political adviser but has been jerked from public view.

More than that, Mr Clinton clearly hopes to signal a resetting of his own political compass and thus reverse the impression that he has yielded to the traditional 'tax-and-spend' impulses of his party and abandoned his promise to be a so-called 'New Democrat', capable of building cross-party bridges.

In announcing his decision, Mr Clinton commented: 'I have been very concerned that the cumulative effect of some of the things which are now very much in the news has given to the administration a tinge that is too partisan and not connected to the mainstream, pro-change, future-oriented politics and policies that I ran for President to implement.'

Mr Gergen has been at pains to distance himself from his Republican pedigree, pointing out that he is registered as an independent and that, as a journalist, never took a strongly Republican stance. 'I moved away from Republican politics as such about nine years ago when I became a journalist and I hope I've established myself as a moderate voice,' he said yesterday. He and Mr Clinton became acquainted several years ago as participants in political and media brainstorm sessions - so- called Renaissance Weekends - held every new year at a southern beach resort.

As a thoughtful, authoritative figure, Mr Gergen is unlikely to attract the animosity that Mr Stephanopoulos suffered from the White House press corps. It appears that Mr Stephanopoulos's deputy, Dee Dee Myers, will handle daily briefings for the time being.

The question is whether Mr Gergen alone can help Mr Clinton, whose approval ratings have slumped to a ghastly 36 per cent, and who faces a critical battle in pushing his economic programme through the Senate. Echoing the sentiment of many, the Republican Senate leader, Bob Dole, said yesterday: 'It's the message that matters, not the messenger.'

(Photograph omitted)

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