White House turnover has toll Clinton relies heavily on former advisers as he faces Senate trial

January 01, 1999|By Susan Baer and SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As he confronts the gravest crisis of his political life, President Clinton is finding himself with diminished credibility, with the modest agenda of a lame-duck president and with few of the valuable political advisers who were by his side earlier in his presidency.

Gone from the White House are such skilled political veterans as Leon E. Panetta, Clinton's former chief of staff, who had a keen understanding of the culture of Capitol Hill, and former press secretary Mike McCurry, who offered the public an authoritative, yet genial, face for the White House.

As is generally true in the final years of a two-term presidency, some key political positions are being filled by third- and fourth-string players. Some have been with the Clinton administration from the start and have the advantage of experience, but not necessarily the judgment and instincts of the earlier draft picks.

To compensate, Clinton has been relying heavily on advisers outside the White House as he grapples with the reality of some sort of impeachment trial in the Senate.

He has been on the phone constantly, say those with knowledge of the president's activities, reaching out to such political heavyweights as former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell -- who has agreed to informally help the president navigate the Senate phase of the impeachment process -- and to many of his former staff members.

Some former advisers -- such as Panetta, former White House special counsel Lanny Davis and political strategists James Carville and Rahm Emanuel -- are among a circle of Clinton allies who regularly appear on televisionor talk to the news media on behalf of their former boss. Some of them participate in morning conference calls with the White House to coordinate the message of the day.

To augment his political brain trust, Clinton brought back to the White House last fall some former staffers -- including Steve Ricchetti, a lobbyist in private practice who once worked for Clinton as a Senate lobbyist, and Susan Brophy, another former Clinton lobbyist who had moved overseas -- to work specifically on relations with Congress, where Clinton has never enjoyed great favor.

"I can't think of another president who, at this stage in his presidency, was so dependent on those people who've left," says Charles O. Jones, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin.

The turnover at the Clinton White House, though typical of two-term presidencies, has been exacerbated by the scandal that has dominated the president's second term. That crisis has caused not only fatigue and disgruntlement among aides but also frustration that little of substance is being achieved in the shadow of the continuing scandal.

Some close to Clinton say the exodus of much of the administration's political talent has taken its toll, resulting in, for instance, Clinton's reliance on a team of lawyers that is interested mostly in protecting him from legal liability. Clinton's highly legalistic statements on the Lewinsky matter antagonized some members of Congress and may have contributed to the impeachment push.

"He has suffered from not having a political press lawyer -- somebody who understands the legal issues but sees them through a political prism," said one source close to the administration who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"From the beginning of the Lewinsky scandal, that perspective has been missing. A lot of judgments were made because of the absence of that person being in the room. They missed the additional perspective needed to mitigate the political interests."

Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, agrees. He points to the administration's now-abandoned idea, suggested by current chief of staff John Podesta on a Sunday morning talk show the day after Clinton was impeached, that the White House might challenge the constitutionality of an impeachment by a lame-duck House.

"It would be helpful to have some wise people around to say, `If the president stalls in any way or goes into a legal mode, it will be a very bad mistake,' " Hess says.

In matters of public policy, Clinton, who has a genuine interest in topics ranging from health care reform to Middle East relations, has long been an independent operator. Though famous for seeking as many viewpoints from as many sources as possible, Clinton generally does so to trigger or to help shape his own ideas, presidential scholars say. By contrast, Ronald Reagan was far more staff-dependent on policy matters.

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