A One-Man Band in the White House

April 13, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- "People. People. People. I don't know any people. I only know voters,'' John F. Kennedy blurted out in the days after he was elected president but before he actually took office. ''How am I going to fill these jobs?''

Bill Clinton might say the same thing now, but with a critical difference -- he is president, and has been for more than a year.

The greatest continuing problem in the Clinton White House is this: Everyone in there can say ''no,'' but only two people, the president and his wife, can say ''yes.''

In a very fundamental way, Mr. Clinton never completed his transition from president-elect to president, and it is still not clear that he will any time soon. The 2 1/2 months between the election and the inauguration of a president are dominated by personnel matters, the recruiting of an administration, from a secretary of state down to coat holders to the assistants to executive assistants to assistant secretaries.

One day a president-elect is still worrying about how to reward a genial college dropout who helped him carry San Francisco County, and the next day, in the words of President Harry S. Truman, the moon, the sun and the stars drop on his shoulders. That day, the day he moves into the White House, he has to delegate most of the authority to appoint assistant attorney generals or federal judges in North Dakota. But this president has not done that, and he is paying a high price, including the craziness of Whitewater.

As Congress came back from its Easter recess last week and the president was having a fine old time watching the University of Arkansas crowned as college basketball champions, the Washington Post greeted Mr. Clinton with good political news and bad.

The good news was under this headline: ''Spring Recess Gauges Depths of Whitewater. Constituents Say Issue Is Overblown.''

The bad news: ''Loops of Power Snarl in Clinton White House -- Mistakes and Confusion Seem to Be a Way of Life.''

''Wild ride . . . breathtaking lurches . . . constantly reinventing itself . . . new people learning their jobs . . . blissful ignorance . . . lines of authority resemble a plate of spaghetti.'' Those were a few of the phrases used in that second piece by Ann Devroy, the Post's White House correspondent.

All true, though some of the confusion in the White House is deliberate. Like John Kennedy and many other politicians, Mr. Clinton has a bent toward chaos because he uses disorder as a way to control his own people, keeping them off balance.

(In passing, that article mentioned that the number of people on the White House staff has now reached 1,004. No wonder economic and employment statistics are looking better.)

In Cabinet departments, many jobs are not filled because the president, or Mrs. Clinton, has not gotten around to making or clearing appointments. Or, he has made choices clearly unacceptable to Congress -- Lani Guinier as assistant attorney general for civil rights was only the most prominent example. He may never make those appointments in many cases, leaving Republicans, Reagan-Bush appointees, in critical positions.

Mary McGrory, the Post columnist, pointed out that one of the latest Whitewater problems -- a call from the White House protesting the appointment of a political enemy of the president's to investigate Whitewater-related affairs -- was Mr. Clinton's own fault. The foe, she wrote, ''was named by the Republicans in the Resolution Trust Corp., who are there because President Clinton couldn't get around to naming any Democrats.''

The chaos level right now is demonstrated by the fact that the nominal head of RTC, Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Roger Altman, is the only surviving No. 2 in the major Cabinet departments. The original under secretaries of state and defense are gone, and so is the first deputy attorney general.

The lone survivor, Mr. Altman, has already lost his chance to succeed his boss, Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen, because Senate confirmation hearings would almost certainly become a mini-Whitewater hearing.

Another casualty of the chaos has been former congressman Stephen Solarz of New York, who was the president's choice as ambassador to India, but then was investigated -- and cleared -- of ethical transgressions involving a Hong Kong businessman. In other times, being declared innocent would be enough, but Mr. Clinton decided that in these times he could not take any appointment hearings likely to produce any controversy involving the word ''ethics.''

So it goes, and there is no reason to think it will change. In the dark humor of the White House these days, according to Ms. Devroy, they call it the Clinton Cycle: bad spring, recovery in the fall. No matter how many people, people, people there are around him, President Clinton is likely to be remembered as a talented one-man band -- a gifted television president.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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