Panetta's influence comes to the fore as he imposes White House discipline

SHHH, MR. PRESIDENT

August 11, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, his White House communications team and his new chief of staff, Leon E. Panetta, agreed on how the announcement about Rwanda would go down:

Mr. Clinton would go to the White House briefing room to announce the emergency response. He would then turn the podium over to Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Brian Atwood, a special envoy to Africa.

The president would be accompanied by press secretary Dee Dee Myers, but he would take no questions. The entire exercise would demonstrate how the White House operation would be crisper under Mr. Panetta's direction.

But turning away from a live microphone doesn't come naturally to Mr. Clinton. So when reporters fired off a couple of questions, the president answered them.

"Suddenly, here comes this angry Italian like his hair was on fire," recalls one White House aide who was standing in an adjoining office. "It was Leon. He said, 'Who's in there?' We said, 'Dee Dee.' And he started through the door."

Luckily, Mr. Clinton emerged from the briefing room before Mr. Panetta got through the doorway. The two men had turned and started up the ramp toward the Oval Office, when a last shouted question came wafting through: "Mr. President, what about the baseball strike?"

Mr. Clinton paused and, turning to his clench-jawed chief of staff, quipped, "Now there's one I want to answer."

Mr. Panetta knew he was being kidded, but he had made his point: The new man is dead-serious about imposing discipline at the White House.

The first thing this has meant is that everybody is to jabber less. And yes, this means Mr. Clinton, too. In fact, it means Mr. Clinton mostly.

"I think there was a sense that the president was beginning to suffer a bit from overexposure," said one aide. "That's not the easiest thing to tell your boss, though."

Evidently, Mr. Panetta has managed it. Six weeks after coming over from the Office of Management and Budget, Mr. Panetta's influence is beginning to be felt inside and outside the White House.

Mr. Clinton has reduced the number of off-the-cuff remarks and ceremonial appearances he makes to reporters and others. Typically, Mr. Clinton had spoken three or four times a day to audiences ranging from the Girl Scouts to foreign leaders to the "pool" of reporters who follow him around. He would also travel once or twice a week on campaign-style events, speak at up to three fund-raisers a week and often work weekends at a frenzied pace.

In the past two weeks, Mr. Clinton has been sitting for news media "photo opportunity" shots an average of just once a day. He is also traveling less, and though still attending Democratic Party fund-raisers, spending less time at them.

His focus appears to be trying to round up votes on Capitol Hill for the crime bill and the health care bill. Mr. Panetta has told people that the White House obsession with how the president communicates is misplaced -- that ultimately Mr. Clinton will be judged primarily on his success on issues like health care, crime and the GATT trade agreement.

Mr. Panetta is also taking steps in two other directions. The first is evaluating whether White House staff members are in the jobs that are right for them -- or if more talent needs to be brought in from outside. This is a touchy area, and Washington has been rife with rumors about who is in and who is out.

"Leon has not made any [personnel] decisions," one adviser to Mr. Panetta said. "He has not made any job offers. He has not made any recommendations to the president."

But one personnel decision was made this week: David Wilhelm, who had a key role in Mr. Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign TC and was rewarded with the top job at the Democratic National Committee, has been pushed out. Mr. Wilhelm announced Tuesday that he would return to Illinois after the November elections. At the insistence of the White House, former Rep. Tony Coelho of California, a longtime friend of Mr. Panetta, was given a top position with the committee.

Mr. Panetta's second personnel-related initiative is his effort to establish clear lines of authority so, as one aide says, "everybody actually knows who reports to whom."

Until Mr. Panetta arrived, Mr. Clinton's Oval Office sometimes resembled the resident adviser's room during late-night bull sessions in a college dormitory. Top advisers such as George Stephanopoulos, David Gergen and Bruce Lindsey were sort of ministers-without-portfolio, who dropped in and out of issues and meetings and had frequent private conversations with Mr. Clinton.

Mr. Panetta, according to those close to him, was told of these problems and, before accepting the job, insisted on having the authority traditionally given to chiefs of staff. Such authority includes setting the president's schedule, controlling access to him and, most sensitively, having influence over who is hired and fired.

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