If you want to succeed with Clinton, follow these rules under the new boss

December 21, 1992|By Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein,Los Angeles Times

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Memo to: The New Cabinet.

Subject: The New Boss.

Congratulations on being selected to join President-elect Bill Clinton's administration. Better take a minute to study the terrain. You are now working for a man who relaxes with 500-page policy tomes (interrupted by occasional detective novels), who thinks nothing of calling advisers at midnight to bat around an idea, who sends back 30-page memos to get the exact source of a statistic on page 29.

And don't be fooled by his outward affability. Mr. Clinton has strong likes and dislikes when it comes to those who serve him.

In that spirit, based on the experience of friends, aides in Arkansas and advisers in his presidential campaign, here are one-short-of-a-dozen rules for understanding your new boss. They constitute a road map to the mind of the next president.

Rule No. 1: An important title doesn't necessarily guarantee influence with Mr. Clinton. Like most politicians, he doesn't like to fire people. But he's not averse to shifting work and responsibility away from someone he decides is falling short.

"Clinton is a guy who makes lots of adjustments to keep real power and energy on top," says Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California in San Diego and former campaign adviser. "The real question with Bill is going to be who he gives the work, not who he gives the title."

In his presidential campaign, for example, he moved authority over fund raising from Bob Farmer, a big name, to Rahm Emmanuel, an unknown. Likewise, over time, authority for advertising strategy shifted from Frank Greer to Mandy Grundwald, a younger partner in Mr. Greer's firm. And who had heard of George Stephanopoulos, Mr. Clinton's spokesman, 12 months ago?

Rule No. 2: Bring lots of information to the Oval Office. The fastest way to fall out of favor with the new president, says one of his senior campaign advisers, is "not to be prepared. If he called and said we need to do 'X' and you say we need to do 'Y,' he would never just say OK. He would always ask you for 10 reasons."

Some politicians like to read memos; some like to hear their aides argue a case like lawyers before a jury. In that sense, Mr. Clinton is ambidextrous. He'll read almost anything people put in front of him (although he's grateful for brevity) and he likes to gather large groups to hash out contentious issues.

His favorite approach, said one adviser, "is to put people in a room who wouldn't normally be there together."

Whether on paper or in person, be ready to answer questions -- lots of them. Mr. Clinton's style of running meetings often is to steer them by asking questions without tipping his own hand. Few questions are too obscure.

Rule No. 3: Don't back him into a corner. One sure way to get his back up is to push him into a decision before he feels ready. Many in Mr. Clinton's orbit believe that he denied campaign chairman Mickey Kantor's bid to head the transition largely because he believed that he was being rushed into the choice right after the exhausting campaign.

Rule No. 4: Don't rely too heavily on precedent to make your case. During the preparation for the presidential debates, Mr. Clinton and his aides discussed at length whether to address President Bush as "Mr. President" or "Mr. Bush."

At one session, one of his advisers told Mr. Clinton that Democratic challengers had always called the incumbent Mr. President in both of the previous two elections. Another adviser shot back: "That's right, and we always lost."

In the debates, Mr. Clinton addressed the president as Mr. Bush.

Rule No. 5: Don't try to hide weaknesses in your arguments. Those who have argued with him say that you're much better off leveling with Mr. Clinton about the potential downside in a recommended course of action than denying that risks exist. "If you prepare too tidy a box, he will untie it," said one of his top campaign strategists.

Rule No. 6: Always remember that with Mr. Clinton no idea exists in isolation from its political consequences. In this, Mr. Clinton could not be more different than the last Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, a trained engineer who tried to solve social problems as though they were mathematical equations.

The danger in this attitude is that it can produce excessive caution -- and oversensitivity to the demands of loud interest groups. Even some advisers worry that in the appointment process he has appeared to give interest groups too big a voice in deciding the fate of some candidates -- such as economist Larry Summers, who sank as a potential chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers after he ran afoul of environmentalists.

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