Clinton and the art of public speaking

28th December 1997

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On Asian economic chaos he said with a wry smile: "... a significant part of our growth comes from our ability to sell to others around the world including in Asia. And so it is very much in our interest to do what we can to support the Asian economies as they work to weather this crisis."

He said the IMF - and the other international institutions - should play leading roles, and that there is a framework which they can do that. The world, he said, had seen what these institutions had done in Mexico Japan and the United States should also cooperate closely to help. He was pleased with the efforts which were being undertaken to help rebuild South Korea. He stressed the importance that "reforms" must take place in nations which are affected by the economics turmoil.

Clinton asked himself this question, "Do I think we need to do mere?" and answered: "I think we may need to do more within the framework that has been established. But that needs to be a judgment made on case-by-case basis. The important thing is the United States must be in a position to do more, to fulfil its responsibilities, and that means among others things, that it's very important when Congress comes back here that we take up again the bill to provide for paying the dues we owe the United Nations and for giving us the ability to participate in the so-called new authority to borrow provision of the IMF...

"... But it is important that the American people understand we don't have a surplus yet, we have a deficit. It's over 90% smaller than it was when I took office. It was at US$290 billion (RM 1,102 billion) and now it's at US$23 billion (RM 87.4 billion). That is not a surplus."

The press conference took place in the Dean Achenson Auditorium where before him Kennedy had held so many memorable press conference, one of which I attended as a congressional fellow on study-leave from the Straits Times.

The press conference left me a with deep impression. I have heard Clinton several times, in Chicago and at the United Nations but that Tuesday he enchanted me not so much with what he said but the way he imparted his message, and how much. Of course, he was incisively courteous, and displayed a political acumen rarely matched by any living or dead American presidents, perhaps with the exception of Reagan and Kennedy.

His acumen has made him a savvy occupant of White House, confirming the public view that Clinton is a remarkable strategist and "a politician extraordinary." He takes the centre position on issues before his Republican opponents are able to react. As in the American childhood game of tick-tack-toe, in which whoever makes their mark in the contra square first controls the game, Clinton likewise always marks the centre square with his "x" ensuring that he will either win or at least not loose in the contest of winning public opinion on an issue. Often times his own Democratic Party colleagues are strained and pressed to tidy-up the party position as the result of his shifts and moves to the centre.

Clinton is a good communicator, never seeming to lose words to make comment, although not always convincing, on a multitude of subjects - from Turkey's membership in the European Union (he felt Turkey deserved it) to defiance by Saddam Hussein (he said he had many options); Israel's perceived slight (he denied he intended it) to women in military (he would be very reluctant to embrace anything that would deny women opportunity to climb up the ladder).

Clinton was masterful though he lacked the wicked charm, class and sophistication of Kennedy. However the most important thing is he is believed even if he is not telling the truth. He has so far managed to get away with everything. He is a known quantity and the voters figured he is smart enough to elect him twice. Clinton is a fantastic and lucky president; something of a rogue but an adorable one! As Michael Kelly, a columnist said, "Clinton: fast on his feet, full of big ideas and full of himself, in some ways immature, something of a rogue. Maybe a sincere guy, but also a guy who practises his sincere look in the mirror."

The holiday season has just ended. The American economy is bullish, and yet a week before Christmas five American companies announced a total of 76,000 job cuts, Boeing, the aerospace giant, will downsize its work force by 12,000 in the new year. The huge tobacco firm, RJR Nabisco Holdings Corporation will shrink 2,800 (most of them overseas, in a bid to make bigger cigarette profits outside the country).

Polaroid, the giant maker of instant photographic equipment, will eliminate 1,500 jobs world-wide and get out of the business of making chemicals for its own film.

Cabletron will be axing 600 jobs and will close and consolidate some plants world-wide and cut 10% of its global work force. The beleaguered Eastman Kodak decided to increase its job cuts. By Christmas 19,900 Kodak employees were unemployed. The giant AT&T telephone company and Sears, the huge departmental chain stores both announced layoffs of some 40,000 in past Januaries. It does seem some companies normally start the new year by giving the bad news first!

I sympathise with who have or will soon lose their jobs. It must have been devastating for them that after being wished "Merry Christmas" to only be told "you're fired in the New Year" or "A happy and prosperous New Year" and in the next breath "you're dismissed in April or..."

Since I have no power to hire on fire my greeting is genuine: ... a belated Merry Christmas, and a Happy and Prosperous 1998!

Dato'Abdullah Ahmad is Malaysia's Special Envoy to the United Nations

(This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of SUN )