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Jewish World Review May 15, 2001 / 22 Iyar, 5761

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

The Moment? You'll know it when it comes -- WASHINGTON | Everyone seems to be waiting for the Moment.

The Moment comes early in each new presidency -- the Moment is an incident, a speech, a policy decision, an off-the-cuff remark . . . something that suddenly and forever defines who the president is. Americans elect a new president for any number of reasons, but until he moves into the White House they're still not quite certain of what they've gotten. Kind of like the couch you buy at the department store -- you've purchased it because you think you like it, but you won't really know until it's in your living room.

There is agreement that the Moment for George W. Bush has not yet happened -- he's been in office since January, the country is getting accustomed to him and he to the country, but the Moment has not arrived.

How do you know it when it comes?

You just do.

A very perceptive social observer who lives in Valparaiso, Ind. -- his name is Doug Schnick -- tells me he has a theory about when the Moment arrived for Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton.

Was it Clinton's actions in a management-labor dispute? A policy speech that demonstrated his brilliance? A military decision that only the president could make?

No -- at least according to Schnick.

Schnick believes Clinton's Moment -- the Moment that would sum him up in the eyes of Americans -- came "when Clinton was doing a question-and-answer seminar at either a high school or a college, and a young girl got up to the microphone and asked [him] if he wore boxers or briefs."

Now . . . you probably vaguely recall the incident. And you may be asking yourself why anyone would think that such a trifling thing defined the Clinton presidency.

The exchange actually occurred not at a school, but in a television studio in Washington. MTV was sponsoring a forum to which 200 young people had been invited.

Laetitia Thompson, 17, of Potomac, Md., said to President Clinton:

"Mr. President, all the world's dying to know. Is it boxers or briefs?"

Clinton paused and flashed that what-an-interesting-thing-to-ask Clinton smile.

"Usually briefs," he said.

He smiled again and added, in a friendly tone and in that Clinton voice: "I can't believe she did that."

So . . . why did that become the Moment for Clinton?

According to Doug Schnick, Clinton acted "like it was a terrifically funny question, and actually justified it with an answer. The whole country became fixated with the thought of our president's underwear."

So what should Clinton have done?

Schnick thinks he knows:

"Consider for a moment if, instead, [Clinton] sadly shook his head and said something like: `What a disappointing and inappropriate question, young lady,' and moved on to the next question. What a difference this message would have sent us. What a difference this message would have sent his advisers. One can only wonder what direction his presidency would have taken."

Is Schnick making too much of a trivial exchange?

Maybe -- but you can argue the case that he's not making too much of it at all. All the historic controversies aside, the Clinton presidency was one that said: The president is just a guy. There's no distance between the president and the people. The White House is loose and informal. Don't be nervous or stand on ceremony around the president -- he's one of you, but he happens to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

You may or may not think that those are bad (or good) things. But it's difficult to dispute Schnick's theory: that if Clinton had said "What a disappointing and inappropriate question, young lady," instead of "Usually briefs," an entirely different message about the tone of his presidency would have been sent out. Perhaps "Usually briefs" was the more accurate summation of who Clinton was -- but would he have been helped or hurt if, in that moment -- in that Moment -- he had opted for sternness and dry decorum, whether he meant it or not?

Meanwhile, the world waits for President Bush's Moment. It won't be about underwear. Lightning doesn't strike twice in the same drawers.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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