Talbott at State

December 31, 1993

Secretary of State Warren Christopher, a Clinton intimate who headed the transition team, is not leaving his job as Secretary of Defense Les Aspin did, but he is either cutting the job down to size or having that done for him.

Two men of considerable stature are taking on parts of it. One is Vice President Al Gore, whose performance in Moscow and in television debate with Ross Perot revealed his solid grasp of foreign affairs. The other is Strobe Talbott, whom Mr. Christopher just promoted to the No. 2 job in the department, deputy secretary. Mr. Talbott replaces Clifton R. Wharton Jr., who was let go as apparent scapegoat for what many Washingtonians had thought were Mr. Christopher's shortcomings.

The part that is hard to swallow is that deputy secretary usually is the nuts-and-bolts guy who makes the department hum while the secretary is in Moscow or the Middle East negotiating history. Such a crucial job cries out for a department insider, a bureaucrat's bureaucrat who understands the paper flow and what can be expected of whom.

Mr. Wharton, a university president, was billed as an administrator who would do that. If he failed, his successor needed to be someone with the State experience he lacked, which characterized every name on the short list except Mr. Talbott's.

Mr. Talbott is also an outsider to State. He comes from journalism. He is an expert on Russia, the Cold War, nuclear weaponry and the Washington power game. A policy guy. Moreover, he is a charter member of FOB, the Friends of Bill society. Mr. Talbott and Mr. Clinton were suite mates at Oxford and have been friends since. Mr. Talbott entered the State Department as ambassador-at-large to the former Soviet Union, in effect an assistant secretary whose turf was torn from others'.

Mr. Talbott articulates policy -- in writing or in Capitol Hill testimony -- more lucidly than Mr. Christopher; he formed ideas before coming into government; he can stand in as policy spokesman; he has readier access to the Oval Office than most Cabinet members. This last point is so obvious that both White House and State officials were at pains to convince the press that the appointment was Mr. Christopher's and not Mr. Clinton's.

Is Mr. Talbott being groomed as a future secretary of state? Whatever may happen next, it is clear that a major voice in foreign policy formulation has been handed a larger megaphone. Someone else will be appointed to keep the in- and out- and through-put boxes cleared.

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