Who's on first after White House shuffle?

June 29, 1994|By Sandy Grady

WASHINGTON -- WHEN fly balls are landing on outfielders' heads and runners are sliding into the same base and boo birds are jeering, there's an instant solution:

Change the manager.

That's the essence of what happened to Bill's Bumblers in the White House shakeup that replaced Mack "The Nice" McLarty with Leon "Neon" Panetta as chief of staff.

The Bumblers were playing lackluster .500 ball and -- before I mercifully give up the baseball analogies -- were in lousy shape for the pennant drive.

In truth, Mack the Nice was a decent, amiable Arkansas sidekick totally miscast as manager of the Clinton White House.

"He's my closest friend," said Bill Clinton on Monday as he demoted Mr. McLarty sideways to the post of presidential counselor.

Because a guy's been your pal since kindergarten in Hope, Ark., doesn't mean he can run a White House. The job requires the savagery of Darth Vader and savvy of Machiavelli. Instead, Mr. McLarty had the pleasant vacuity of a wedding usher.

Worse, Mr. McLarty came to town with a shakier knowledge of Washington than an immigrant cab driver.

Not to worry -- Mr. Clinton, with his insatiable appetite for wonkish detail, would be his own chief.

As the first 19 months of the Clinton regime proved, that was a semi-disastrous idea.

"This place is dysfunctional," moaned one staffer this spring, complaining that the Clinton team specialized in Endless Meetings That Never Reached a Decision.

The anarchy, of course, was bred in Mr. Clinton's personal style. He thrives on give-and-take gab, free-wheeling chaos, seat-of-the-pants intuition. He prefers to play the presidency like a blues saxophone, winging it without sheet music.

Long before Bob Woodward's book, "The Agenda," revealed free-lancing bedlam inside the White House, someone was frustrated with the Chinese fire drill.

That someone was Hillary Clinton, a First Woman with a low tolerance for disorder. Even if Mack the Nice was Bill's best pal, he had to go.

"We began talking about it before the D-Day trip. The president didn't feel he was getting the kind of counsel and judgment he needed on a day-to-day basis," said Mr. McLarty, who suggested Mr. Panetta take over his job. "We made it final at Camp David last weekend."

Why now? Mr. Clinton's gauzy spin -- "a stronger, more energetic and unified team for daunting challenges ahead" -- wasn't the raw truth.

Sure, the White House wasn't in deep crisis -- yet. But the Clintons, Al Gore and assorted consultants saw it drifting without focus. Health-care reform was floundering, Americans losing faith in the economy, dollar plunging, Mr. Clinton's poll numbers stuck in the low 40s, Democrats jittery about 1994 elections.

Will this musical-chairs waltz make a difference to Bill's Bumblers?

After all, presidents in a jam ritually fire the manager. Richard Nixon brought in Al Haig during Watergate. Ronald Reagan in Iran-Contra recruited Howard Baker's expertise. George Bush returned Jim Baker to the chief's job to "save" his re-election.

The probable answer is yes, Mr. Clinton's shifts will help the Bumblers at least marginally: Leon Panetta has talents missing in Bill's buddy, Mr. McLarty.

After 16 years on Capitol Hill, Mr. Panetta knows the players, understands House members' two-year cycle of insecurity, and can play budget numbers like a Wurlitzer.

Beneath his Italian-American rosiness, Mr. Panetta can be brutally candid. A year ago he moaned so gloomily about the economy, Mr. Clinton was shocked. Some suspected Mr. Panetta, shades of David Stockman, might be fired.

"He's been working 60-70 hours a week and got discouraged," Mr. Clinton excused Mr. Panetta. "I've got to buck him up."

Does Mr. Panetta have the gutsy gift every president needs -- the gall to walk into the Oval Office and tell him he's on the wrong track?

Does he have the arrogance of an H.R. Haldeman or John Sununu to crack the whip over a White House staff adrift in lassitude?

Maybe in the end Mr. Panetta's success will depend on a shift of style by his undisciplined boss: Will Mr. Clinton let Mr. Panetta run the place and abdicate as his own free-winging chief of staff?

Even if Mr. Panetta wreaks magic inside the White House, Mr. Clinton hasn't dealt with a weak foreign-policy team headed by lusterless Warren Christopher. Sending over Dave Gergen to polish the message isn't an answer.

Mr. Clinton, though, breezily insisted he had the best of all worlds with Mr. McLarty as counselor, Mr. Panetta as Chief Fixit.

"Fifty years ago Army had [Doc] Blanchard and [Glenn] Davis as Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside," said Mr. Clinton. "They'll be my Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside."

Yep, politicians are incurable. They can't lay off sports metaphors.

Sandy Grady writes from Washington for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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