A Cabinet without heavyweights

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

WASHINGTON -- Perhaps the most striking thing about the second-term Cabinet and White House staff being assembled by President Clinton is how unstriking it is.

With all due deference to Madeleine Albright, William Cohen, Anthony Lake and the rest, there is no one who stands out, on paper anyway, as a real heavyweight in terms of achievement or reputation. As a result, the president is likely to seem even more than in his first term to be the top dog.

All presidents, to be sure, wear a cloak of supreme authority and power by virtue of the office they hold. But most of Mr. Clinton's recent predecessors have had ranking Cabinet heads or White House staff aides whose reputations have singled them out as powerhouses in their own right, or occasionally even rivaled the president himself. Not Mr. Clinton, either in his first term or now as his second term approaches.

In his first term, only former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, a onetime presidential and vice-presidential candidate, had great stature in his own right when Mr. Clinton made him his first secretary of the treasury.

The first-term secretary of state, Warren Christopher, was well known inside the Washington beltway as a former assistant attorney general and undersecretary of state, but hardly a household name elsewhere. His mild and passive demeanor inspired Ms. Albright, his eventual successor, to describe him jokingly once as ''almost lifelike.''

President Clinton at the outset of his first term bore the additional burden in terms of respect for his Cabinet as a result of the fiasco in finding an attorney general designate who would pass muster. Both Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood had to be thrown to the wolves before Janet Reno finally got the job as clearly a backup choice.

In the George Bush and Ronald Reagan years, however, James A. Baker III -- Mr. Bush's secretary of state and Mr. Reagan's White House chief of staff and secretary of the treasury -- was regarded in some quarters with a respect approaching the awe usually reserved for the president himself. Indeed, both Presidents Bush and Reagan conspicuously deferred to Mr. Baker in matters both domestic and foreign, even to the point in the Reagan years that many in Washington saw him as the Edgar Bergen to the president's Charlie McCarthy.

Bush's superstars

Mr. Bush also had as his secretary of defense Richard Cheney, a man of considerable prominence as White House chief of staff for Gerald Ford and No. 3 Republican in the House before that, and former Gov. Richard Thornburgh of Pennsylvania, a Reagan carryover, as his attorney general.

Jimmy Carter had two secretaries of state with distinguished records and reputation in Cyrus Vance and former Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, and Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon had Henry Kissinger as their secretary of state, perhaps the most obvious example of a ranking Cabinet member with a stature approaching the presidential.

Then there was former Democratic Gov. John Connally of Texas, of whom Republican Nixon thought so highly that he not only made him his treasury secretary but also considered dumping Vice President Spiro Agnew so that Connally could be his running mate in 1972 and then seek the presidency in his own right.

You can, in fact, go back as far as Franklin D. Roosevelt to find heavyweights in every Cabinet who came in with more luster and acclaim than anybody in Mr. Clinton's first or second Cabinet: at state, John Foster Dulles for Dwight D. Eisenhower and James F. Byrnes and George C. Marshall for Harry Truman; at treasury, Douglas Dillon for John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and Henry Morgenthau for FDR, and so on.

It may be that one or more of Mr. Clinton's second-term Cabinet or staff appointees will turn out to be giants, but nobody in the first term is likely to be placed in this category. The Clinton years will be judged on what the man himself has done, which no doubt is as he wants it.

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

Pub Date: 12/20/96

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