Moving In, Moving Out

ANDREW J. GLASS

October 19, 1992|By ANDREW J. GLASS

WASHINGTON — Washington.-- Some years ago, a major college named a new president. As one of his first acts, the new man sought out his predecessor, who had been in the job for many years and finally bowed out at age 75.

Although they hadn't known each other, over breakfast the new man asked the old one for his help. How does this place run? What traps must I avoid? Whom can I count on in a crisis?

''The way I see it,'' the old president replied, ''if you were smart enough to get them to hire you, then you'll be smart enough to figure it out.''

Their talk comes across as a civil one compared to what typically goes on when one president moves out of the White House to make way for the next. The frosty winds that often blow through the city in late January are no match for the mood inside the mansion when that rite takes place.

In 1981, Hamilton Jordan called the White House a few hours after Jimmy Carter left office, asking about the U.S. hostages who had been held in Iran. As a top aide to Mr. Carter, he had spent many months seeking their freedom.

''Sorry, we can't tell you a thing,'' said the cold voice on the other end of the line. ''Your security clearance expired at noon.''

In late 1980, Ronald Reagan's talent scouts filled the memory banks of two computers with the names of thousands of job-seekers who had worked in the campaign. They matched them up with the open slots in ''The Plum Book,'' the roster of jobs exempt from civil-service rules.

Some of them knew what needed to be done and did it. Many others lacked even a dim idea of what it takes to serve in government. They failed miserably.

Will history repeat itself next year?

It's one thing to hold George Bush in low regard as a leader. But it's quite another to believe that the Clinton team will have all the answers if it should win. Yet, after all the nasty stuff that flies back and forth in the debates, is it any wonder that the two men may not be on speaking terms when, finally, it's all over?

If the past is any guide, a President Clinton is likely to commit some whoppers when the two sides stiff one another. As usual, the true losers in this who-needs-you-guys contest will be the public.

Look for the anger of the folks who move out to be matched in full by the arrogance of the folks who move in.

Take, for example, the mid-level official who works 16 hours or so a day trying to keep nuclear arms out of the hands of nasty dictators. Virtually nothing that he does is at issue in this election. And he's very good at what he does. So good, in fact, that he's turned down several bids from the president to move up to a high-level post.

Why? Only because on Election Day, in the polling booth, he votes Democratic and he'd just as soon not switch.

But if the Clinton team should move in, this arms expert will be soon gone. Why? Only because he faithfully served his country under two Republican presidents.

If the election turns out that way, in that domain as in many others, a Democrat who happens to be a buddy of the president-elect will want to start fresh with his own ''shop.'' As a result, years of useful experience will go down the drain.

There ought to be a better way.

Andrew J. Glass is chief of the Cox Newspapers Washington Bureau.

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