Panetta gets 'full authority' to end White House chaos

June 29, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- For his new job as President Clinton's chief of staff, Leon E. Panetta insisted on -- and was given -- "full authority" to oversee personnel and policy decisions at the White House, he said yesterday.

At a lunch with a group of reporters, Mr. Panetta said that Mr. Clinton had assured him that he would have the authority "a chief of staff needs to do the job."

If so, this would represent a change in Mr. Clinton's presidential style. Under the tenure of the departing chief of staff, Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III, several White House officials have conceded, the lines of authority were not well-defined, and the final say-so did not always rest with the man the staff affectionately called "Mack."

This partly appears to have been the result of a White House with at least three separate power centers: the Oval Office, the office of Hillary Rodham Clinton and the suite in the Old Executive Office Building occupied by Vice President Al Gore.

In addition, several top aides, including George Stephanopoulos, David R. Gergen, Bruce R. Lindsey, John D. Podesta and Lloyd N. Cutler, have at one time or another had authority over specific issues that exempted them from the normal chain of command. The result has been a White House that has sometimes been logistically chaotic, one in which decisions are often deferred and where some of the best work has been done only after a situation has reached crisis stage.

Mr. Panetta, a California congressman for 16 years and Mr. Clinton's budget chief for the past 18 months, indicated that he intends to impose order and discipline, although he expressed himself delicately, out of deference to both Mr. McLarty and the president.

He said that he hadn't decided yet whether wholesale staff changes were required -- but said that if he concludes that such changes are necessary, they will happen soon.

While personnel decisions -- who may be fired, who will stay -- are a very sensitive issue inside the White House, Mr. Panetta also must work on policy.

On this front, Mr. Panetta signaled no major changes.

He defended the administration's strategy of sending major health, crime, welfare and campaign reform legislation to Congress all in the same year.

While laboring over those issues, President Clinton has complained openly during the past eight months that he isn't getting the recognition he deserves for his first-year successes, which included a far-reaching budget bill and passage of such significant legislation as a family leave bill, the Brady gun-control law, and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Real results count

But Mr. Panetta minimized the public relations problems. Instead, he expressed confidence that if the president's legislative accomplishments continued, the public would judge him favorably on real results, not on "message-spinning."

"Sometimes a football team doesn't look that good going down the field, but if they score some points, that's what counts," he said. "In the end, all of us will be tested on what we accomplish."

Mr. Panetta, who turned 56 yesterday, has friendly relations with the press and a keen understanding of how Congress works. Yet he said he doesn't see his primary role as being a liaison with those two institutions.

"My fundamental responsibility is to roll up my sleeves, go to work in the White House to improve the management," he said.

The new chief of staff acknowledged that one part of his job is managing upward.

His boss, the president, sometimes acts not only as his own chief of staff, but also as his own campaign manager, chief lobbyist and press spokesman.

Mr. Panetta suggested that Mr. Clinton has learned that he can't do all those jobs.

"This is not a president who wants to micro-manage," he said.

One rap against Mr. McLarty was that he was "too nice," raising the question of whether Mr. Panetta, known for his infectious laughter, will himself be able to take the tough steps necessary to make the Clinton trains run on time.

Longtime friends say they think he might. They point out that Mr. Panetta quit the Nixon administration in a huff when he thought Mr. Nixon was pandering to Southern segregationists. He was also a tough negotiator for the Democrats during the Bush administration budget wars.

"Leon's nice, but there's a steel in his niceness," said Rep. Don Edwards, the dean of the California congressional delegation. "He was a hawk on the deficit, much to the liberals' disliking. And remember, he told Nixon where to shove it. He's a great guy, but he can be one stubborn Italian."

Yesterday, both Mr. Panetta's humor and his quiet toughness were in evidence.

Patented laugh

Three times during the lunch, Mr. Panetta broke into his patented loud laugh.

Once it was when a reporter reminded him that the Clinton campaign consultant Paul Begala, frustrated with Mr. Panetta's obsession with reducing deficit spending, had dubbed him the "Poster Boy for Economic Constipation."

"Terms of endearment," Mr. Panetta said, scrunching his eyes and guffawing.

But another time, he was asked a long-winded question about Haiti that included the supposition that "as OMB director" Mr. Panetta couldn't possibly want to see a flood of "unskilled refugees" descending on America's shores.

Mr. Panetta smiled, but his tone had an edge to it.

"You're talking about my parents," he said quietly.

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