bill clinton in the white house -- 9/24/18

Today's selection -- from Organizing the Presidency by Stephen Hess. The organization of Bill Clinton's White House:

"Clinton's White House was marked by youth, inexperience, and diver­sity. He naturally turned to his campaign, as most presidents do, for his personal staff. Of 450 initial White House assistants, sixty-three were twenty-three years old or younger and many others were under thirty. Yet at the top levels of the Executive Office, the age of Clinton appointees, about forty-five, did not differ significantly from the average age of Reagan, Bush, or George W. Bush appointees.

"The top staffers at the Clinton White House were not particularly experienced in the ways of Washington. Exceptions included George Stephan­opoulos, Howard Paster, and NSC director Anthony Lake. While it is true that in 1993 the Democrats had a shallow bench of former White House professionals -- Republicans having occupied the White House for twenty of the previous tweny-four years -- there were Carter aides who might have been tapped. But in addition to the natural bias in favor of one's own cam­paigners, there was an unfortunate bias against those associated with the Carter White House. After four months in office, Clinton admitted his need for expert Washington hands and recruited David Gergen, who had served presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. Gergen was seen as a turncoat by Republicans and as too conservative by liberals in the White House. Yet he lent a ballast of experience and maturity (some said 'adult supervision') that helped stabilize the Clinton White House.

"White House organization always reflects the personality of the presi­dent, and the disorder of the early days of the Clinton White House reflected the wallowing of a notorious policy wonk in the details of domes­tic policy. Clinton resisted 'premature closure,' or what others would call 'making up his mind.' Willing to listen to continued debate and unwilling to cut it off, Clinton, according to one staffer, could 'have a 10-minute meeting in two hours.'

William J. Clinton, 42nd President of the United States, 1993-2001.

"Ordinarily, a president's chief of staff imposes order on the policy devel­opment process, insists that all issues are 'staffed out' before they reach the president, and runs meetings in an orderly and disciplined manner. But Clinton's first chief of staff was not able to play the traditional role. Thomas ('Mack') McLarty, the president's boyhood friend, ... [had] no agenda of his own, a gracious manner, and no psy­chological need to dominate the White House, he was known as 'Mack the Nice.'

"Clinton was the first Democratic president to come to office admitting that he needed a chief of staff -- it took Carter until 1979 to abandon his 'spokes-of-the-wheel' approach -- but Clinton admitted it only intellectually; viscerally, he was not willing to delegate sufficient authority to McLarty to do the job. McLarty did not have a major say in the selection of White House personnel nor did he control office space in the West Wing. In addition, much of his time was spent as an emissary to Capitol Hill and the business community. Being a special troubleshooter meant that he could give only part of his time to actually running the White House, a job that takes a time commitment of 110 percent. Some said McLarty did not have the right personality to be chief of staff, but the real reason that he was unable to control the White House was that Clinton would not dele­gate enough authority to him to do the job. Also, the president was not the only power center in the White House. As McLarty told Gergen when he came on board in 1993, 'In this White House, as you will find, we usually have three people in that top box: the President, the Vice President, and the First Lady. All three of them sign off on big decisions. You'll just have to get used to it.' The Clinton White House was unique in the way that power was shared from the beginning. ...

"The bottom line is that during the first year President Clinton was not willing to delegate enough power to anyone else to manage the policy process and that the administration consequently suffered from poor organization. McLarty's challenge was described by Secretary of Labor Robert Reich: 'Nothing gets done in this wildly disorganized White House unless B [Bill Clinton] orders it done (and even then there's no guarantee).' Reich was sympathetic to McLarty's plight: 'Poor Mack has been unable to impose discipline on a chronically undisciplined president and a chaotic White House staff.' With no disciplined policy process, members of the cabinet and White House staff become tempted to build their own back channels of communication. Reich felt that his memos were not getting to the president and went to the First Lady for help. 'Send them to me,' she said. 'I'll make sure they get to him. Use blank sheets of paper without any letterhead or other identifying characteristics. Just the date and your initials.'

"Clinton came to understand that the lack of discipline was hurting him, and in summer 1994 he replaced McLarty with Leon Panetta, his OMB director, who had had a long career in Congress."



Stephen Hess with James P. Pfiffner


Organizing the Presidency


The Brookings Institution


Copyright 2002 The Brookings Institution


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