Plus ca Change at the White House

March 19, 1995

The more things change at the White House the more they stay the same. After two years in office the Clinton administration still finds nominees to major posts discredited before the confirmation process has formally started. Once again Mr. Clinton has had to reach down into his meager pool of talent to fill a job quickly, lest he be seen as leaving another important office vacant too long.

There is no need to dwell on the particulars of the domestic problem that led retired Gen. Michael Cairns to withdraw his nomination as director of central intelligence. It's now clear a lot of people prominent in public and private life have felt they could skirt with impunity immigration and domestic wage-and-hour laws. The Clinton administration's failing is its compulsion to announce major appointments before the necessary FBI clearances are completed. A sure-footed White House would wait until it was confident there were no hidden problems. But an administration that stumbles so often must strain to create the image of an administration headed by a decisive president. Which, unfortunately, sometimes leads to more stumbles.

The president's quick nomination of John M. Deutch has the earmarks of a good choice. He has a long record in high Washington posts, now as deputy secretary of defense. Any "nanny" problem should have long ago been unearthed. His record as a public official is exemplary. It led some administration officials originally to oppose his nomination to head the Central Intelligence Agency because he is too valuable at the Pentagon. There he has exerted strong leadership in the restructuring of the armed forces to deal with new challenges abroad and new domestic realities at home.

If our cheers at his nomination are a bit muted, it is because others in the national security field have looked equally good on paper, only to fail one way or another. Dr. Deutch's background, in fact, has strong parallels with R. James Woolsey, the previous CIA chief, who resigned last December after failing to get a grip on the spy agency. On the vital issue of Army readiness last year, Dr. Deutch was at best less than candid in a report to Congress, a disconcerting precedent for a CIA chief.

We repeat the point we made when General Cairns was named. The CIA badly needs strong leadership that can reorganize the agency to meet the new challenges of the post-Cold-War world. Dr. Deutch has the administrative strengths and political smarts the job demands. If only the daggers don't get him first.

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