'William J Clinton is an undisciplined and inveterate babbler,' Murray Kempton, a liberal commentator, wrote. 'No president before him has so speedily made it so easy for one to take his full and puny measure.'
The surprise is that Mr Clinton was meant to be, if nothing else, one of the more professional politicians in America. The election campaign showed him tactically adroit, but since he entered the White House he has repeatedly shot himself in the foot: having his hair styled by Christophe of Beverly Hills while delaying traffic at Los Angeles International airport, or firing the White House travel staff to make way for his cousin.
Among Mr Clinton's blunders and policy reversals:
Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood: James Carville, who ran Mr Clinton's campaign, blamed it all on appointing people with strange first names. Within weeks of entering the White House his first two choices as attorney general had to withdraw because they employed illegal aliens. Everybody said it was the teething trouble to be expected from a new administration, but why had Mr Clinton chosen a caricature corporate lawyer for such an important post? And why make the same mistake twice?
Haiti: During the campaign, Mr Clinton said Haitians fleeing their homes on leaky boats for Florida should have a chance to make their case for asylum. On the eve of inauguration, his staff had a nightmare: just as the new President was entering the White House, 100,000 Haitians would be sailing for the US. To the amusement of Mr Bush's staff, they reverted to Republican policy of sending the Haitians home.
The Haitian junta noted that Mr Clinton had changed his mind. It hinted at first it would allow a civilian government to return. Then it said UN monitors or special police force could reduce human rights abuses. As Mr Clinton weakened, the junta's line toughened. Compromise was rejected. The democratic opposition, which won two-thirds of the vote in the last election, and had rejoiced in the streets when Mr Clinton was elected, became dispirited at what it saw as a his betrayal.
Gays in the military: Not a total flip-flop or a mistake for which Mr Clinton carries much blame, but politically costly all the same. Ronald Reagan and Mr Bush spent dollars 500m on a witch-hunt to detect and expel gays from the military. Mr Clinton had promised to end discrimination, but when he tried to end the ban, he met resistance from General Colin Powell, the immensely popular chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As an opponent of the Vietnam war, committed to cutting the defence budget, Mr Clinton was always going to have difficult relations with the military, but this was an unpopular issue on which to fight.
A compromise is likely, whereby gays will not say openly that they are homosexual and the military will not ask them. Mr Clinton knew he was taking up an unpopular cause, but it is surprising that he did not foresee the strength of the opposition that he would face.
Middle-class tax hikes: During the campaign, Mr Clinton said he would not raise taxes for the middle classes. At one moment he declared that nobody earning less than dollars 200,000 would be affected. Then in February his budget taxed much lower income groups, even if the main burden fell on the high earners. A little unfairly, the Republicans were able to accuse him of a flip-flop. Most of the dollars 115bn in new income taxes comes from the wealthy, but the dollars 71bn energy tax hits everybody and is deeply unpopular in such oil states as Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
If all else had gone well for Mr Clinton, his deficit reduction plan might not be in such trouble. Its introduction was the high point of his presidency. Wall Street liked it and so did a majority of voters. Nobody predicted he would have to fight so hard to get it through a heavily Democratic House, whatever difficulties he faced in the Senate. But the Republicans wanted to win back their reputation as the low tax party, and Mr Clinton's campaign for his plan was undermined because other blunders by his administration were dominating the television headlines.
Real Life, page 22