President-elect Clinton's choice of a trusted boyhood friend, Thomas F. McLarty, as White House chief of staff is by far his riskiest appointment to date. Mr. McLarty's greatest asset, the one asset that may bring him success, is his determination to be "straight" with Mr. Clinton -- in other words, to tell him he is wrong without any taint that he may have his own personal agenda. His greatest liability is a complete lack of Washington political experience in a post that historically has demanded it.
The McLarty selection suggests once again Mr. Clinton intends to be his own chief of staff just as he says he will be his own chief economic adviser and much more. This approach is gubernatorial. It assumes a president is just an enlarged version of a governor. But it doesn't work.
Former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter tried to organize his presidency with half a dozen advisers all reporting to him. He soon discovered (as Gerald Ford had before him) that he needed a chief of staff to coordinate a flood tide of problems. Unfortunately, his choice was a poor one. Instead of turning to a Washington insider, he picked a Georgia sidekick, Hamilton Jordan. The parallel with Arkansas businessman McLarty, despite his managerial experience, is disturbing.
The office of White House chief of staff has its formal origins in the Eisenhower administration when the general-turned-president decided the ad hoc arrangements of the past no longer sufficed. Yet in Sherman Adams, President Eisenhower picked a provincial politician who alienated Washington's permanent power centers.
Of the chiefs of staff since, the best have been Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (Ford) and Howard Baker and James Baker (Reagan). All knew Washington. All knew that contentious issues need winnowing and their flaws identified before a president makes final decisions. They knew policy even if they did not try to impose policy on their bosses. The Clinton suggestion that Mack McLarty will simply be a non-ideological manager may represent too much of a downgrading.
What Mr. McLarty is likely to avoid is the over-reach of an Alexander Haig (Nixon) or Donald Regan (Reagan) or John Sununu (Bush). What he may also avoid is the failure of advisers against dubious moves, as in H.R. Haldeman's failure to warn President Nixon of the Watergate quicksand.
By happenstance, President-elect Clinton's choice of Ronald H. Brown, a potentate in the Democratic Party, for secretary of Commerce at the same time he announced his chief of staff underscored the dangers of the McLarty appointment. Mr. Brown, like Treasury secretary-designate Lloyd Bentsen and incoming budget director Leon Panetta, knows his way around Washington. But he does not agree on all issues with Messrs. Bentsen and Panetta, who don't agree all the time with one another. Will Mr. McLarty be able to sort out such disputes in a way helpful to Mr. Clinton? He will have to prove it before Washington believes it.