As the White House chief of staff job passed yesterday from that good old Arkansas boy, Mack McLarty, to that savvy old Washington hand, Leon Panetta, one question regarding the education of a president was bound to arise. Why Mr. McLarty in the first place? After Jimmy Carter's experience with his Georgia sidekick, Hamilton Jordan, you would think Bill Clinton might have learned. For manager of the White House staff, a president needs someone who knows his way around the federal government and who is well aware of the vicious underside of life in the nation's capital.
Mr. McLarty is many things to President Clinton: His best friend, his most loyal lieutenant, a confidant whose goodwill and lack of personal ambition (rare Washington commodities) can be taken for granted. But it was not enough. Even with his business experience, the White House needed more than administration. It needed intuition, a sharp nose for the political and the possible, an antenna attuned to sounds of brewing trouble.
For this essential task, Budget Director Leon Panetta proved to be an apt choice just waiting to be made. A Republican-turned Democrat with 16 years in Congress, including a distinguished stint as chairman of the House Budget Committee, he has put in 18 months as Mr. Clinton's deficit-hawk in residence. And as such, he was chief architect of the 1993 budget package that cut $500 billion from projected national debt -- so far, this administration's most significant achievement.
Clearly, the new assignments -- Mr. McLarty as presidential counselor, Alice Rivlin moving up from deputy to director of the Office of Management and Budget and David Gergen as PR adviser to a foundering State Department -- are not of sufficient magnitude to give this presidency a new look. That depends on a very rattled Mr. Clinton.
But at least with Mr. Panetta as chief of staff, the president will be knowledgeably served as health-care legislation approaches decision time on Capitol Hill. A year ago, be it remembered, Mr. Panetta's budget was by no means assured the passage, by single votes, that it achieved in the House and Senate. The North American Free Trade Agreement, then considered a dead duck, proved to be one live bird. With adroit direction, the heavy 1994 legislative agenda could yet make headway.
Among Mr. Panetta's many new tasks, the most important could a further shakeup in the White House staff that he all but promised. From the outset, the Washington establishment has regarded many Clinton aides as brash, arrogant, inexperienced and ill-equipped to protect the president. "Changes will be made in consultation with the president and in the spirit of making the best use of talent," Mr. Panetta vowed. These changes are much desired. For as Mr. Clinton indirectly acknowledged, his administration needs "added strength and vitality."