Cabinet choices show faith in lawyers, concern for '96 10 are attorneys

most are centrists

December 26, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- Making an administration from scratch is like writing a novel. To succeed, it has to work on many levels.

Bill Clinton's first chapter, his Cabinet, has been analyzed in detail. All the scrutiny has been on demographics, however. The rest of the developing plot has been largely ignored.

There are reasons, of course, for obsessing over matters of racial, ethnic and gender balance. It's simple, for one thing. Counting blacks or Hispanics or women or baby boomers in the new government is a game everyone can play and understand.

Mr. Clinton pledged to field a team that would "look like America." And he went to extraordinary lengths to deliver (in the process making himself look like the sort of old-style, special-interest panderer he said he wasn't).

Placing a diverse group around the Cabinet table is one way of paying back those who put him into office and, he hopes, will keep him there for eight years. Significantly, the only part of his pledge he failed to redeem was the one about getting Republicans and independents into the Cabinet.

That's no real surprise to reporters covering the Clinton transition in Little Rock, Ark. When Clinton aides were asked whether so-and-so was in line for a Cabinet appointment, the response often was: "What would that get you?" It is a question Mr. Clinton and his advisers presumably asked one another each time a new Cabinet candidate was suggested.

So, it seems fair to inquire, what did Bill Clinton get in assembling his initial Cabinet?

For one thing, he got a group of people who look surprisingly like him. Of the 14 Cabinet secretaries in his new administration, 10 are lawyers, quite likely a record number. Mr. Clinton is the first lawyer elected president since Richard Nixon and the first in history whose wife is also an attorney.

By contrast, the Bush Cabinet, headed by a non-lawyer president, has only two lawyers, and one of them is the attorney general, who -- by tradition, if not definition -- is always a lawyer. Even on Capitol Hill, where laws are made, the number of lawyers has been declining in recent years: 239 out of 535 members will have law degrees in the new Congress, down from 298 in 1974, according to Congressional Quarterly).

Such a dense concentration of legal minds atop the executive branch will no doubt gnaw at those who think lawyers have too much to do with running the country. Presumably, Ross Perot, who wanted more business types under the hood fixing government, will add this to the bill of particulars he is compiling down in Dallas.

Like Mr. Clinton, most of the new appointees are political centrists. The administration will tilt at least slightly left-of-center, though, if for no other reason than the presence of liberals such as Robert B. Reich at the Labor Department and the absence of any real conservatives. Far more important than ideology, however, is whether the new Cabinet has enough good managers and innovative thinkers. Whatever Mr. Clinton may think about his own ability to run the government, he's sure to need a lot of help in achieving the changes he promised in the campaign.

At least one plot line of the new presidency seems increasingly clear: the political one. The West Coast and the industrial Midwest form the heart of an evolving strategy that has as its goal a re-election victory in 1996 -- and, presumably, the cementing of a new era of Democratic dominance at the national level.

The president-elect has made high-profile, post-election visits to California and to the Chicago area, and political calculations have been apparent in most of the personnel jockeying during the transition. One Clinton adviser noted with satisfaction, for example, that two key Cabinet jobs went to Wisconsin (Les Aspin at the Defense Department and Donna E. Shalala at the Department of Health and Human Services), a battleground state in presidential politics.

Indeed, the permanent campaign has already become the motif of the Clinton administration. The new president plans to be on the road a lot, keeping in touch with the grass roots, building popular support for his initiatives and putting pressure on

Congress.

And if all that helps him write the biggest political success story of the 1990s, well, he probably won't mind that, either.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover are on vacation. Their column will resume when they return.

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