'Classic White House Shuffle'?

December 26, 1993|By SUZANNE GARMENT

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Secretary of Defense Les Aspin has quit. The White House definitely wielded the hook; one day after the resignation, President Clinton cheerfully presented the nation with Mr. Aspin's successor.

Still, Mr. Aspin was not dragged off the stage kicking and screaming. Rather, he seemed wearily resigned, burdened by his own mistakes and his wounds from the political battles he had been forced to fight.

The news media portrayed the change as a "classic White House shuffle." Yet, Mr. Clinton has suffered several high-level losses since summer, in a pattern that makes his administration something of an anomaly on the Washington scene.

Usually, political appointees at the highest levels of government leave office in numbers when their administration is doing badly or nearing an end. When both things happen at once, as with the Bush administration, a great scurrying sound is heard.

When things are not so bad, people tend to hang on to their jobs -- or at least try to hang on. Political power is a very pleasant thing, and individuals who hold it understand that no job in the private sector, no matter how high-paying and perk-filled, is going to match the thrill.

It is settled Washington wisdom that when an official becomes embroiled in controversy, he must hunker down and chain himself to his desk. Yes, he will have to endure derogation and invective. Yes, there will be calls for his resignation. None of this humiliation matters. In Washington, survival equals victory. Leaving is defeat.

Things are working out a bit differently in this administration.

Most of Mr. Clinton's first year in office was marked by blunders and edge-of-the-abyss confusion. On the culture-war front, there were gays in the military, exploding nannies and the Lani Guinier nomination. The administration's moral authority was compromised by Travelgate. When it came to foreign affairs, the Clintonites could not manage to mount a policy in Bosnia, Somalia or Haiti. The president's major early victory, on the budget vote, was achieved with so much suspense, so many private promises, and by such a narrow margin that it served to emphasize his weakness.

But Mr. Clinton persevered, undaunted. His energy did not flag. Whatever the public misfortune, he was able to give a fluent and plausible account of himself. He walked through the political fires seemingly surrounded by his own personal heat shield.

And, amid the setbacks, glimpses of light began to appear. The president finally got himself an attorney general, and his first U.S. Supreme Court nomination met with overwhelming approval. He presided over the Middle Eastern peace accord. His health plan was born, misshapen but breathing. He achieved a real legislative win on the North American Free Trade Agreement and began to address the nation's widespread fear of crime. His poll numbers started to rise.

Yet, the accumulating pieces of good news did not keep him from losing valuable aides. On the very day that the administration climbed out of the cellar to hit "two home runs," as one White House adviser put it, with the public reaction to the nominations of Attorney General Janet Reno and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, deputy White House counsel and close Clinton friend Vince Foster killed himself.

Less tragically, in the wake of the NAFTA win, Howard Paster, assistant to the president for legislative affairs and a chief architect of the victory, resigned, citing a desire to return to a relatively sane private life. Mr. Paster became chairman of the public-relations firm Hill and Knowlton.

At the same time, Deputy Chief of Staff Roy Neel, who had shouldered a heavy burden of administrative duties in the White House, left for similar reasons. Mr. Neel took a job with the U.S. Telephone Association.

Then came the resignation of Mr. Aspin, after setbacks no worse than those suffered by other Cabinet members in history who, nevertheless, found the strength to cling tenaciously to office and power.

So something unusual is happening here. The president walks on hot coals and emerges refreshed and asking for a Big Mac. Meanwhile, those around him start to wilt like cold french fries.

Is this to be the pattern in the Clinton administration? Will the president's every upturn be accompanied by someone else's high-level burnout?

Imagine the succession of future headlines: "President Clinton Wins Approval for Crime Bill." "Attorney General, Widely Regarded as 'Loose Cannon,' Quits, Vowing New Career in Preservation of Everglades Wildlife."

"Clinton Succeeds in Installing Aristide in Haiti." "Secretary of State Warren Christopher Returns to Los Angeles Law Firm, Citing Desire for Informal California Lifestyle."

"Bill Clinton, Long-Running American Heartthrob." "George Stephanopoulos Faints on Stairmaster, Will Require Extensive Bed Rest."

And where will it all end? This is where: "Clinton Health Plan Passed Nearly Untouched. All Factions Join in Predicting Golden Age for Medicine, Patients." "First Lady Suffers Nervous Collapse. Will Spend Next Six Months in Cookie-Baking Occupational Therapy."

Mr. Clinton is said to learn well from his mistakes. It might be more accurate, we are discovering, to say that he will simply exhaust or outlast those around him in politics, friends or foes. Such a trait may be the most formidable one a president can possess. Presidential intelligence can often be out-calculated or out-manipulated; presidential stamina is virtually impossible to beat.

Suzanne Garment is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in Politics." She wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

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