Erskine Bowles is all business Contrast: Under its new chief of staff, a once wild and woolly White House settles into an organization patterned after Fortune 500 companies.

Sun Journal

February 26, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton chose Erskine B. Bowles as his new chief of staff, the Clinton White House came full circle.

Once derided as having all the discipline and organization of a college dormitory, the White House now is patterned more closely after a Fortune 500 company. Its chief operating officer is Bowles, an unassuming-looking North Carolinian for whom making the trains run on time is not an afterthought.

Just four years ago, FBI agents assigned to the White House were registering disgust as young White House aides failed to bother with such trivialities as security clearances or cleaning up after late-night pizza, and didn't hesitate to pop into the Oval Office for unscheduled bull sessions with the president.

Leon E. Panetta, who became chief of staff in late 1994, changed much of that, and with Bowles in command the transformation is now complete.

Buttoned-down and press-shy, Bowles is a fanatic about promptness and lines of authority. He is smooth-mannered, courteous and unthreatening -- and a skilled political infighter. And famously unsentimental.

It is known that Bowles insisted that deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes be canned before he would consent to be Panetta's replacement. The ultra-loyal Ickes first heard of this by reading the morning newspaper.

"It never occurred to me that Harold would stay," Bowles said later. "Harold and I were equals. In any organization when one person is selected to take a position, the other person generally decides to do something else."

One White House aide who read these comments found them chilling, but others say they are grateful to work for someone who is direct with both praise and criticism. "He's a grown-up with a strong sense of producing results -- not playing games," says chief White House speech writer Donald Baer.

Bowles' admirers also say that his attitude is a natural result of his management style, which is to delegate authority to others. But if delegation is to succeed as a tool, it must be accompanied by accountability.

A measure of how important such themes are to Bowles came at the news conference in November in which Clinton introduced him as Panetta's heir-apparent. Panetta, a popular Democrat with a quick temper and a propensity to laugh loudly at himself, spoke emotionally about his Italian immigrant parents, his family, how far he'd come in life and his deep love for his native California.

Here is what Bowles said:

"I believe in working in a bipartisan manner. I believe in cooperating for the common good. And I believe in having an administration that has clearly defined goals, objectives and time lines such that it and its people can be held accountable."

White House aides commented on the contrast between the passionate Panetta and the bureaucratic Bowles. But Bowles, too, can evoke great emotion when talking about his parents. He recently recalled a time when his father, Democratic activist Hargrove "Skipper" Bowles, received a civic honor.

"I appreciate the award," the elder Bowles said, looking at his son Erskine, then just a boy. "But don't judge me by what I've done. Judge me by what my children do for others."

Bowles, a wealthy 51-year-old entrepreneur, and his wife, a textile heiress, have tried to live up to such expectations by plunging into community service, civic affairs and politics, a realm in which Bowles is considered a pro-business centrist.

"It sounds so corny I won't even let you use my name, but Erskine came to Washington for the right reasons -- to serve others," says one White House official. "He doesn't have an agenda of his own, doesn't see Clinton as some roly-poly doll who he uses for his own purposes."

Bowles, who attended boarding school in Virginia, the University of North Carolina and graduate school at Columbia, doesn't need money or to make a reputation. He has been instrumental in bringing professional sports to North Carolina and is a devoted fan -- to the point that he reduced a two-day session with the new Cabinet to a morning seminar so that he could watch the NFL playoffs -- specifically, of his beloved Carolina Panthers, in which he owns a small interest.

The new White House chief of staff was not an early "Friend of Bill"; he has known Clinton less than five years. But he proved his mettle in two areas valued highly by the Clintons: He raised lots of political money, and he took some heat for them on Whitewater.

Bowles also is an accomplished golfer, with whom Clinton enjoys playing -- even if he can't beat him.

The two men met in 1992 at a fund-raiser where Bowles helped bring in $1.5 million in contributions. A few days later, while the candidate was campaigning in North Carolina, Bowles told Clinton that earlier that morning his son Sam, a diabetic, had a seizure. Bowles complained about President George Bush's ban fetal tissue research, which some believe might help lead to a diabetes cure.

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