Panetta's move to oust press secretary thwarted

September 24, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- All summer, Dee Dee Myers was rumored to be on the verge of being pushed out as President Clinton's press secretary. Yesterday, after an exhaustive search that lasted nearly three months, White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta announced her successor: Dee Dee Myers.

"Both the president and I have full confidence in her ability to handle that role," Mr. Panetta told incredulous reporters.

His remarks came at a session originally designed to demonstrate that Mr. Panetta was instilling a sense of discipline and organization to a White House operation that had been sorely lacking in both. Instead, it had the opposite effect: demonstrating that the Clinton administration still has a haphazard style reflective not of the new chief of staff, but of the man in the Oval Office.

Ms. Myers, a 33-year-old Californian, was on her way out as recently as midday Thursday, according to well-placed White House sources. But on Thursday afternoon, she made an emotional appeal directly to Mr. Clinton. The president relented, and State Department spokesman Michael McCurry, who was to have come over and assumed her duties, was told that he was staying put at State.

The scene in the West Wing had been chaotic since Thursday afternoon, when much of the communications staff huddled behind closed doors while Ms. Myers fought for her job. Her daily briefing Thursday was first postponed and then canceled without explanation. Yesterday, Mr. Panetta blithely dismissed the entire episode as "rumors" and deflected questions about Ms. Myers' successful lobbying campaign.

The criticism of Ms. Myers centered on two areas: first, her seeming inability to find out what was going on in the White House and communicate to the press corps even the news that the administration wanted to get out. The second was that in conducting press relations in an us-against-them manner, she was actually generating negative coverage of Mr. Clinton.

Ms. Myers complained to friends in the White House that she did not have the access to the president that she needed to do her job properly. Her allies also argued that removing the most visible woman on the White House staff would be politically sensitive, particularly because three or four other women were slated to be reassigned in Mr. Panetta's reorganization.

Significantly, when Mr. Panetta announced his much-awaited White House "restructuring" yesterday, only one of the women in question, White House scheduler Ricki Seidman, was on the list of those leaving the White House. The others are staying -- and in their current jobs. In fact, except for the job swap of Philip Lader, deputy chief of staff, and Erskine Bowles, head of the Small Business Administration, the staff reorganization consisted of minor changes.

For instance, Communications Director Mark Gearan will be called coordinator of strategic planning for communications, overseeing the speech-writing staff, which, he said, he has been doing for months.

One source said that Ms. Myers' appeal to the president was primarily personal: She reminded Mr. Clinton that she had gone through the campaign with him, had never said a disloyal word about him and had been denied access to the inner sanctum.

Most of those who work under Ms. Myers, particularly the younger female aides, were ecstatic that she had won her showdown with the formidable Mr. Panetta. Ms. Myers not only kept her title of press secretary; she also gets a bigger salary and a bigger office. Moreover, she was noticeably absent at the White House yesterday afternoon while Mr. Panetta struggled through what one White House aide said must have been very painful for him.

But if the retention of Ms. Myers was seen as a victory by her friends -- and by other women in the White House -- the last-minute flip-flop undermined the very impression that Mr. Panetta was trying to create yesterday: namely of a new and improved White House operation, in which decisions are no longer made in a haphazard way -- and where Mr. Clinton and the first lady are not micromanaging.

In addition, yesterday's events risked undermining Mr. Panetta's credibility. Although he insisted that he concurred in the decision on Ms. Myers, other sources in the White House said the opposite. And he said upon taking the chief of staff job in June that he had been promised by the president that he would have all the "traditional authority" held by chiefs of staff -- including decisions over personnel.

Asked about this yesterday, Mr. Panetta replied: "It is an honor and a privilege to serve in the White House. But we all serve at the pleasure of the president."

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