President is vulnerable to staff misadventures



WASHINGTON -- A generation ago, a governor of Ohio named John Gilligan was talking about the political perils of a governor ambitious for national office. "I've got 55,000 people working for me," he said, "and any one of them can bring me down in a minute."

Gilligan's concern about being politically undermined by a scandal in his administration may have been extravagant. President Clinton is still standing after a seemingly endless series of cases in which he has been embarrassed not just by random employees of his administration but by those closest to him.

It would be a mistake, however, to believe that the president has not been seriously compromised by cases such as that of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros. And in Clinton's case, there are special circumstances that could magnify the political damage -- and perhaps change the contours of the campaign of 1996.

The most obvious, of course, is that there have been so many "problems" with so many high-level appointees, including three other members of his Cabinet and several of his old friends from Arkansas. The cliche here -- that this is the gang that can't shoot straight -- is, like most cliches, accurate.

All of this seems more glaring because of the declarations by Clinton when he took office about how his administration would apply ethical standards that would be the strictest ever imposed by any White House.

That history aside, this president is peculiarly vulnerable for reasons that might not apply to many politicians.

One obvious problem is simply the fact that Clinton came to the presidency from the governorship of a small state. The result is that the ineptitude of the Clinton White House in handling personnel decisions that turn sour is immediately attributed to a lack of experience and sophistication.

In some cases, that judgment is clearly accurate. But it is hard to imagine how the president might have known whether Cisneros was being candid with the FBI in discussing the payments to his one-time mistress. And it is hard to see how Clinton might have anticipated the problems with the law firm of Webster Hubbell, the old friend from Little Rock he installed as the No. 2 official at the Justice Department.

The validity of the criticism is politically irrelevant, however. The picture of White House ineptitude is so vivid by now that every problem is viewed as part of a larger pattern -- a perception that cannot help Clinton as he seeks a second term.

A second problem for Clinton in ethics cases is his own history of being less than candid during the 1992 campaign about some of his personal history -- most notably his record in avoiding the draft during the Vietnam War and the facts of his experiments with marijuana as a college student in England.

In electing Clinton, the voters said in effect that they had factored these bits of his personal history into the equation but still considered him the best choice for the White House. But the doubts among voters didn't vanish overnight, and they have been fed more recently by the Whitewater investigation and the Paula Corbin Jones case.

Perhaps the most significant element of the president's political context is the fact that he lacks any strong base of support either in the Congress or the Democratic Party. One of the most striking things about the aftermath of the 1994 elections was the absence of leading Democrats on Capitol Hill leaping to their feet to defend Clinton from the blame heaped on him for the Republican success.

The hard truth is that Clinton has few allies in high places who are willing to walk through a wall for him.

That is one reason there is so much talk about the possibility of a serious challenge to his renomination from some other Democrat, such as Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey or Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. Although the betting is that the president will not face such a challenge or, if he does, can defeat it, the fact that so many Democrats are talking about it speaks volumes.

This is the reason another case like the one involving Cisneros is so damaging to the president. To whatever extent these ethics investigations reinforce a perception of vulnerability, they also add to the chances of someone taking on Clinton on the grounds that he cannot be re-elected anyway.

In the end, the Cisneros case may prove to be only a blip on the screen. But there have been a lot of blips.

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