Failing to learn, Clinton the Cabinet-maker repeats the mistakes of the past

November 20, 1996|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton seems determined to make the same staffing mistakes in his second term that he made four years ago.

He apparently intends to stretch out the process long enough so that everyone with a special demand can build up a head of steam inside one constituency or another of the Democratic Party. That is asking for trouble. The old rule in politics is that every decision on an appointment produces a dozen angry losers and one ingrate.

Already the delay in choosing a new secretary of state to replace Warren Christopher has encouraged speculation about Madeleine K. Albright, the ambassador to the United Nations, which in turn has fueled a demand from activist women that Ms. Albright be given the job. If she isn't, the decision clearly will be seen in some quarters as evidence of the president turning his back on women after they gave him his winning electoral margin.

Mr. Clinton might have avoided the problem simply by naming a replacement for Secretary Christopher immediately after the election. He had known for months that Mr. Christopher planned leave and for several weeks that he was going to win the election. And the process of choosing a secretary of state rarely involves some unknown who requires extended vetting.

But now the decision is off until early next month or perhaps later -- the president says he won't be held to an ''artificial timetable'' -- while the ''campaign'' for Ms. Albright raises expectations that probably will not be fulfilled.

In fact, Mr. Clinton probably has a better record in choosing women for his government than any of his predecessors. In filling jobs of highest rank -- those that require Senate confirmation -- he chose women in 27 percent of the cases, twice as many as President Carter 20 years ago. That is not the same, of course, as giving half of those jobs to women. But it is still a defensible record in an imperfect world.

Women are not the only group with a special case to be made. Some black leaders already are complaining that this time Mr. Clinton has not promised the diversity in appointments that would make his government ''look like America.'' The same complaint can be heard among Hispanic-Americans, who see the next Cabinet without either Federico Pena as secretary of transportation or Henry Cisneros as secretary of housing.

The black contingent

The problem with African-American leaders is particularly acute. Mr. Clinton's first Cabinet included four black members -- Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jesse Brown. But Ron Brown died in a plane crash, Mr. Espy was forced out by a special investigation of potential conflicts of interest and Ms. O'Leary is leaving after becoming a target of criticism for her big-spending globe-trotting.

That leaves Jesse Brown in place and the certain prospect of a black leader or two being offered Cabinet posts -- including perhaps Mayor Norm Rice of Seattle to succeed Mr. Cisneros.

FTC The prospect that the staffing problem will run on into the new year will recall the same period in 1993 when Mr. Clinton had so much trouble finding a nominee for attorney general who would not be accused of exploiting domestic help -- or finding the ''right'' balance between blacks and Hispanic-Americans in the Cabinet.

At the most elementary level, the makeup of the Cabinet for a second term doesn't have the political importance of one put in place for a first term, if only because Mr. Clinton himself is now a lame duck. But it does send signals about the priorities and character of the administration.

In President Clinton's case, there is the long-running debate over whether he is really a liberal or, perhaps, one of those Southern conservatives masquerading as a moderate. In fact, he is probably neither of those things.

But any president defines himself through his appointments. Mr. Clinton doesn't need competing special interests complicating the task.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 11/20/96

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