A White House in flux Guinier debacle forces reassessment

June 05, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau Staff writer Karen Hosler contributed to this article from Baton Rouge, La.

WASHINGTON -- Four and a half months into President Clinton's term of office, the White House had a feel of almost starting over yesterday.

An uncertain president huddled with advisers in the Oval Office to go over appointments. In a West Wing conference room, the newest senior official, David R. Gergen, introduced himself to the communications staff he will oversee. Meanwhile, Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty continued with an internal staff review to see what fresh political talent needs to be brought in.

Hiring Mr. Gergen last weekend was supposed to be a move in this direction. Instead, with the former Republican speechwriter off for a vacation, nothing changed. In fact, the painful decision to withdraw the Justice Department nomination of Lani Guinier this week was a graphic illustration of what is wrong.

The usual suspects

All the elements of what has plagued Mr. Clinton were present: He made the appointment on the basis of friendship; his staff didn't do its homework; after his advisers realized that her nomination was in trouble, they didn't stand up to Mr. Clinton; when Mr. Clinton belatedly realized it, he vacillated and agonized over the decision, spending hours reading her writings while the problem grew out of control.

As with many Clinton appointments, Ms. Guinier's name didn't bubble up from the staff after aides went through hundreds of names. She was Mr. Clinton's choice and, moreover, a friend from law school, he has acknowledged.

In his emotional announcement Thursday night, Mr. Clinton also conceded that because she was a family friend and because he'd told the staff he was familiar with her work as a lawyer, his counsel's office did not analyze her writings as thoroughly as they should have.

"And frankly, I think the fact that I had known her and cared about her and admired her probably contributed to the way this thing has been handled in a drawn-out fashion," the president added.

But the White House has provided no satisfactory reason why it was so late in seeing trouble coming.

Critical attacks on Ms. Guinier's work appeared in the Wall Street Journal -- a paper Mr. Clinton reads -- on April 30, a day after her nomination. On Capitol Hill, the appointment was generating flak to senators' offices in the first two weeks of May. Mr. Clinton was asked about the appointment in the Rose Garden two weeks ago by a reporter, and he brushed it off.

Although some administration officials predicted that the White House counsel, Bernard Nussbaum, who also oversaw the failed appointments of Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, would be the one who pays for this episode, one official also said the president brushed aside fears expressed by Mr. Nussbaum's office about Ms. Guinier's nomination.

"I think the president may have not been adequately briefed," outgoing White House communications director George Stephanopoulos said yesterday. "That's too bad. But [the president] takes responsibility for it."

'The problem is him'

Increasingly, Democrats in and out of the administration believe that if Mr. Clinton wants to improve his administration's performance, he has to take a look in the mirror.

"He needs to make one basic decision," said a Democratic Party official who has advised the White House. "And that decision is that it isn't Mack who is the problem. It isn't his young staff. It isn't the press corps. It isn't even these Hollywood types. The problem is him. He's got to stop being the CEO, stop saying yes to everybody, stop interviewing 19 people on every minor decision and start being the salesman for his [economic] program. That's his job."

One of the gravest insults to the Clintonites is to say that this XTC president is similar to the last Democrat to occupy the White House, Jimmy Carter. Yet, with Mr. Clinton's style of micro-management, his unwillingness to delegate authority and his habit of agonizing over every decision, the comparisons with Mr. Carter have become inescapable.

"Instead of worrying about whether that comparison is fair to them, they ought to wonder if it's fair to us," said a former Carter administration official. "We didn't keep pulling back nominations."

This view -- that the Clinton White House can't seem to accomplish the simplest task -- is not just an inside-Washington perception, either. In Baton Rouge, La., Alice Howard, a lobbyist for the Rural Electric Cooperative, was a Clinton supporter during his campaign.

She had a photograph taken with him during the party at Union Station shortly after his election but still hasn't put the picture on her wall.

"I'm embarrassed," she said. "He's surrounded by amateurs."

Veteran Democrats, from John White, a former party chairman, to Tony Coelho, a former member of the House leadership, have sent word to the president that he needs to change -- and change swiftly.

Mr. Coelho said bluntly in several White House visits that Mr. Clinton must learn to rely on his staff -- and if he doesn't have confidence in his advisers, he needs new advisers.

'Weak people'

But this is another part of the puzzle.

Mr. Clinton has such a need to control all aspects of his operation that he tends to hire "weak" people, says Raymond Strother, a Democratic consultant who helped on Mr. Clinton's Arkansas campaigns.

One Clinton administration official said yesterday that he considers that judgment too harsh but acknowledged that in hiring so many youthful advisers, especially for his communications and legal offices, Mr. Clinton had surrounded himself with people who might be reluctant to stand up to him.

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