President shuffles top staff

June 28, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- In a staff shuffle aimed at sharpening his often undisciplined White House operation, President Clinton made three changes at the top yesterday, including replacing his boyhood friend Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III as chief of staff with Leon E. Panetta, now the budget director.

Mr. Clinton also announced that White House counselor David R. Gergen, brought in last summer to shape up the shaky communications office, will be a top adviser to the president on foreign policy. Mr. Gergen will have offices at both the State Department and the White House and will report to both the president and Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher.

The president also announced the elevation of Mr. Panetta's deputy, Alice M. Rivlin, to the post of budget director. If confirmed by the Senate, she would be the first woman to hold that job.

Mr. Clinton, speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, acknowledged that his calculated decision to have the White House run by Mr. McLarty, a person he trusted -- but who had no Washington experience -- has had its pitfalls.

Mr. McLarty, who will remain at the White House as "counselor to the president," is a fellow Arkansan whom the president has known since kindergarten and whose main strengths were his sweet disposition and his unwavering loyalty to both the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Mr. Panetta, by contrast, is a political pro from California, who came into politics as a Republican and who has fought in some of the toughest political battles this town has seen in the last three decades.

"I don't like all the time politicians making sports analogies," Mr. Clinton said, "but 50 years ago Army had an All-American backfield of Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, and one was called 'Mr. Inside,' one was called 'Mr. Outside,' reflecting that they had different skills but they were both All-Americans."

The announcement seemed to some White House aides and well-connected Democrats to be the first step of a more complete staff overhaul. Mr. Panetta signaled as much by hinting at further changes that would "make the best use of the talent and abilities that are here."

Mr. Clinton has expressed frustration because his legislative agenda appears snagged in Congress and because he doesn't believe the American people are being told the positive things that he's accomplished.

In foreign policy, which Mr. Gergen will try to bolster, the president faces a widespread perception that his advisers are weak and indecisive and that Mr. Clinton himself is only sporadically interested.

In this environment, Mr. Clinton's approval rating -- never high by historic standards -- has been heading down. The latest surveys show it in the low 40s, ominous numbers for a sitting president.

Mr. McLarty, although well-liked personally, was seen by leading Democrats as part of the problem. It became almost a cliche to say that Mr. McLarty was too nice a guy to run a tight White House ship.

But even some of those mentioned as possible replacements for him believed that it wasn't the early to rise, impeccably dressed and well-mannered Mr. McLarty who lacked discipline -- it was Bill Clinton himself. It is Mr. Clinton, not Mr. McLarty, who is chronically late, who launches into impromptu tirades against his critics and who micromanages himself into knots on policy questions.

"I think Leon has the capacity to bring some discipline and organization, and be a success," said Tony Coelho, former Democratic congressman who himself was recently felt out for a top White House job. "But it really comes down to whether the president gives him the authority to be an effective chief of staff."

That is one question about Mr. Panetta's tenure as chief of staff, but there are others.

Unpleasant tasks

One is whether he can be hard enough to do some of the unpleasant things the job sometimes requires.

For example, on Saturday Mr. Panetta called an old political ally with close ties to the White House to ask what needed to be done. According to the old friend, Mr. Panetta was given this blunt assessment: Press secretary Dee Dee Myers must go. So must the national security adviser, Anthony Lake. Ditto for Democratic party chief David Wilhelm.

Whether Mr. Panetta agrees is not known, but the firing Clinton loyalists is never going to be easy.

But Mr. Panetta's history suggests that he will stand up for himself. Almost 25 years ago, upset by what he perceived as Richard M. Nixon's racist "Southern strategy," Mr. Panetta quit the Nixon administration -- and the Republican Party -- and went back home to the central coast of California.

'Deficit hawk'

He returned to Washington as a Democratic congressman. Although his original passion was civil rights, in the 1980s, because of his service on the House Budget Committee, Mr. Panetta became one of the best-known of the Democrats' "deficit hawks." These lawmakers insisted that the burgeoning annual federal budget deficits and the accumulating national debt weren't just a conservative issue -- that they were threatening the ability of the Congress to pass new social programs.

Bringing that philosophy to the Clinton administration put Mr. Panetta in conflict with political consultants whose populist instincts were just to champion government social programs.

Friends say that he viewed the consultants as too willing to gloss over reality with slogans. In the end, Mr. Panetta believed, this would catch up with the Clinton administration.

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