W hile deficit reduction was essential to my economic strategy, it was not sufficient to build a sustained, widely shared recovery. In the early months, we filled out the agenda with initiatives to expand trade, increase investment in education and training, and promote a host of micro-economic issues aimed at particular trouble spots or targets of opportunity. For example, I offered proposals to help military and civilian personnel who had lost their jobs as a result of the postCold War decline in defense spending; urged our major federal research labsLos Alamos and Sandia in New Mexico, and Livermore in Californiato use the massive scientific and technological resources that had helped win the Cold War to develop new technologies with commercial applications; announced a micro-loan program to support budding entrepreneurs, including welfare recipients eager to get off the rolls, who often had good ideas but couldnt meet the credit standards of traditional lenders; increased the volume of Small Business Administration loans, especially to women and minorities; and named a National Commission to Ensure a Strong and Competitive Airline Industry, chaired by former Virginia governor Jerry Baliles. The airline manufacturers and carriers were in trouble because of the economic downturn, fewer orders for military planes, and stiff competition from the European manufacturer Airbus.
I also offered plans to help communities develop commercial uses for the military facilities that would be closed as defense was downsized. As governor, I had dealt with the closing of an air force base, and I was determined to give more aid to those facing the same challenge now.
Since California was, by itself, the worlds sixth-largest economy, and it had been hit especially hard by defense downsizing and other problems, we developed a special plan to promote recovery there. John Emerson had the responsibility of riding herd on the project and other matters of concern to his native state. He was so unrelenting in doing so that he became known around the White House as the Secretary of California.
One of the most effective things we did was to reform the regulations governing financial institutions under the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act. The law required federally insured lenders to make an extra effort to give loans to low- and modest-income borrowers, but before 1993 it had never had much impact. After the changes we made, between 1993 and 2000, banks would offer more than $800 billion in home mortgage, small-business, and community development loans to borrowers covered by the law, a staggering figure that amounted to well over 90 percent of all the loans made in the twenty-three years of the Community Reinvestment Act.
May was an interesting month, and valuable for my continuing political education. On the fifth, I awarded my first Presidential Medal of Freedom to my old mentor Senator Fulbright on his eighty-eighth birthday. Al Gores father was at the ceremony, and when he reminded Fulbright that he himself was only eighty-five, Fulbright replied, Albert, if you behave yourself, youll make it, too. I admired both men for what theyd done for America; I wondered if I would live as long as they had; if so, I hoped I could wear the years as well.
In the third week of the month, I went to California to emphasize the investments in the economic plan for education and inner-city development at a town hall meeting in San Diego, a community college in Van Nuys with a large Hispanic enrollment, and a sporting-goods store in South Central Los Angeles where the riots had occurred a year earlier. I especially enjoyed the last event. The athletic store, called the Playground, had a basketball court out back, which had become a gathering place for young people. Ron Brown was with me, and we took some of the kids and played each other in an impromptu basketball game, after which I talked about the potential of empowerment zones to create more successful businesses like the Playground in poor communities all across America. Im pretty sure this was the first time a President ever played basketball with inner-city kids in their backyard, and I hoped that pictures of the game would send a message to America about the new administrations priorities, and to young people in particular that I cared about them and their futures.
Unfortunately, most Americans never heard about the basketball game because I got a haircut. I hadnt found a barber in Washington yet; I couldnt go back to Arkansas every three weeks to see Jim Miles, and my hair was too long. Hillary had had her hair done by a man in Los Angeles, Cristophe Schatteman, who was a friend of the Thomasons and whom I liked very much. I asked Cristophe if he would be willing to give me a quick trim. He agreed to do it and met me in my private quarters on Air Force One. Before we started, I asked the Secret Service not once, but twice, to make sure I wouldnt cause any delay in takeoffs or landings if I put off our departure for a few minutes. They checked with the airport personnel, who said it would be no problem. Then I asked Cristophe just to make me presentable as quickly as possible. He did, in ten minutes or so, and we took off.
The next thing I knew, there was a story out that I had kept two runways tied up for an hour, inconveniencing thousands of people, while I got a $200 haircut from a fancy hairdresser who was known only by his first name. Forget the basketball game with inner-city kids; the irresistible news was that I had shed my Arkansas roots and populist politics for an expensive indulgence. It was a great story, but it wasnt true. First of all, I didnt pay $200 for the ten-minute trim. Second, I didnt keep anybody waiting to take off or land, as the Federal Aviation Administration records showed when they were finally released a few weeks later. I was appalled that anyone would think Id do such a thing. I might have been President, but Mother would still have given me a whipping if Id kept a lot of people waiting an hour while I got a haircut, much less a $200 one.
The haircut story was crazy. I didnt handle it well, because I got angry, which is always a mistake. A big part of its attraction was that Cristophe was a Hollywood hairdresser. Many people in Washingtons political and press establishment have a love-hate relationship with Hollywood. They like to mix with movie and television stars but tend to view the entertainment communitys political interests and commitments as somehow less authentic than their own. In fact, most people in both groups are good citizens with a lot in common. Someone once said that politics is show business for ugly people.
A few weeks later, Newsday, a Long Island newspaper, obtained the Federal Aviation Administration records of flight activities at the Los Angeles airport that day, proving that the reported delays had never occurred. USA Today and a few other papers also printed a correction.
One thing that probably kept the haircut story alive and mostly uncorrected was something that had nothing to do with it. On May 19, on the advice of David Watkins, who was in charge of administrative operations at the White House, and with the concurrence of the White House counsels office, Mack McLarty fired the seven employees of the White House Travel Office. The office makes all arrangements for the press when they travel with the President, and bills their employers for the costs. Hillary and I had both asked Mack to look into the Travel Office operations because she was told that the office allowed no competitive bidding on its charter flights, and I got a complaint from a White House reporter about bad meals and high costs. After an audit by the accounting firm KPMG Peat Marwick turned up an off-the-books ledger with $18,000 not properly accounted for and other irregularities, the employees were dismissed.
Once I mentioned the reporters complaint to Mack, I forgot all about the Travel Office until the firings were announced. The reaction of the press corps was extremely negative. They liked the way they had been cared for, especially on foreign trips. And they had known the people in the Travel Office for years and couldnt imagine that they would do anything wrong. Many in the press felt the Travel Office staff virtually worked for them, not the White House, and felt they should have at least been notified, if not fully consulted, as the investigation proceeded. Despite the criticism, the reconstituted Travel Office provided the same services with fewer federal employees at lower costs to the press.
The Travel Office affair proved to be a particularly powerful example of the culture clash between the new White House and the established political press. The director of the Travel Office was later indicted for embezzlement based on Travel Office funds found in his personal account, and, according to press reports, he offered to plead guilty to a lesser charge and spend a few months in jail. Instead, the prosecutor insisted on going to trial on the felony charge. After several famous journalists testified for him as character witnesses, he was acquitted. Despite investigations of the Travel Office by the White House, the General Accounting Office, the FBI, and the independent counsels office, no evidence of wrongdoing, conflicts of interest, or criminality by anyone at the White House was ever found, nor did anyone dispute the Travel Offices financial problems and mismanagement found in the Peat Marwick audit.
I couldnt believe the American people were seeing me primarily through the prism of the haircut, the Travel Office, and gays in the military. Instead of a President fighting to change America for the better, I was being portrayed as a man who had abandoned down-home for uptown, a knee-jerk liberal whose mask of moderation had been removed. I had recently done a television interview in Cleveland in which a man said he no longer supported me because I was spending all my time on gays in the military and Bosnia. I replied that Id just done an analysis of how Id spent my time in the first hundred days: 55 percent on the economy and health care, 25 percent on foreign policy, 20 percent on other domestic issues. When he asked how much time Id spent on gays in the military, and I told him just a few hours, he simply replied, I dont believe you. All he knew was what he read and saw.
The Cleveland encounter and the haircut and Travel Office fiascoes were object lessons about how little all of us outsiders knew about what mattered in Washington, and how the failure of understanding could blot out our efforts to communicate what we were doing to improve what really mattered to the rest of America. A few years later, Doug Sosnik, one of my wittiest staffers, coined a phrase that captured the buzz saw we had walked into. When we were about to leave for Oslo on a trip to promote the Middle East peace process, Sharon Farmer, my lively African-American photographer, said she wasnt looking forward to the trip to cold Norway. Thats okay, Sharon, Doug replied. Its not a home game for you. Nobody likes the away games.