You can give up smoking now that Panetta's here

June 29, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- Just days after President Clinton replaces White House Chief of Staff Mack McLarty with Leon Panetta, the effects already are evident:

In Secaucus, N.J., a manufacturer of novelty goods decides to hire six new employees for his wax lips division.

"Things just feel more focused to me," he says. "And I like Panetta's straight-talking approach to tough problems."

In Petaluma, Calif., a troubled youth decides not to take drugs.

"Panetta's dedication to discipline and order have not gone unnoticed," he says. "I think he will provide a stronger and more unified team for the administration and for the daunting challenges ahead."

Outside Durham, N.C., a farmer stops growing tobacco and starts growing brown rice.

"Not only does brown rice not kill you, but it is rich in niacin," he says. "I wouldn't have had the courage to switch under McLarty, but Panetta's strength and vitality impress me."

In Pyongyang, North Korea, Kim Il Sung decides to halt production of nuclear materials and switch over to the manufacture of cheap, reliable radios.

"Leon is my man!" he says.

The way the press treats personnel shuffles at the White House, you'd think some of these items were actually true.

You'd think switching one chief of staff for another was really going to make a difference.

But do you know what a White House chief of staff actually does?

It was summed up in two sentences by the man whose "toughness" and "focus" and "discipline" were talked about almost as much as Leon Panetta's.

"Every president needs a son-of-a-bitch, and I'm Nixon's," H. R. Haldeman used to say. "I get done what he wants done, and I take the heat instead of him."

His penchant for perjury and obstruction of justice aside, Haldeman may be what Bill Clinton had in mind in choosing a new chief of staff. Because, above all, Clinton wanted "strength."

He had first chosen his boyhood friend, Thomas "Mack the Nice" McLarty, for the job. But McLarty possessed qualities which doomed him in Washington.

He had "unfailing courtesy" and "decency, integrity and goodwill," Clinton said Monday.

So you can see why he had to go.

[Not that he is going far. He is being shuffled to the job of presidential counselor.]

On the other hand, Leon Panetta is "a pillar of strength," Clinton said.

Assume for a moment that it really matters. Assume that "strength" really makes a difference.

If so, wouldn't it be logical for a president who promised to focus "laser-like" on the economy, who was elected because of a bad economy and whose re-election may depend on a good one, to leave Panetta where he is as director of the Office of Management and Budget?

There Panetta could continue to have real impact on the economy.

But now he has been switched to a job Bill Clinton thinks even more important than the economy: Building up Bill Clinton's image.

Though to hear Panetta on Monday, you'd have thought Clinton had just nominated him to the Supreme Court.

"As the son of Italian immigrants, they taught me to believe very deeply in what this nation is all about in our system of government," Panetta said.

But what is Panetta's new job all about?

He is gatekeeper to the Oval Office. Under Haldeman, even members of the Cabinet and Joint Chiefs of Staff had to go through him before they could see the president.

But Panetta will be more than a gatekeeper, the press was assured. He will hone, sharpen and shape the presidential image both inside and outside government.

The last person who was supposed to do that, however, was David Gergen, brought aboard in May, 1993 to great hoopla. Monday he was shuffled over to the State Department.

"Frankly, I don't pretend to be an expert in all of the issues of foreign policy," Gergen said, breaking all Washington tradition and admitting he had no particular qualifications for his job.

But this, too, is the presidential way.

Unless you hijack a helicopter in order to play golf, you never get fired, you just get shuffled.

Full employment is a dream for the rest of America, but at the White House it is a reality.

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