When it is necessary, Clinton does dirty work


WASHINGTON -- We have all learned a lot about Secretary of Defense Les Aspin in the last few days. And we have been told a great deal about his successor, retired Adm. Bobby Ray Inman.

But what may be most interesting about the episode is what it has told us about President Clinton. Despite considerable early evidence to the contrary, Clinton has shown he is tough enough to fire someone and cut his losses.

It is true, of course, that Aspin made a relatively easy target. He is not one of those longtime "friends of Bill" who have popped up in so many key positions in the administration. Aspin's position was quite different, for example, from that of another much-criticized Clinton Cabinet member, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, who had played a critical role in putting together the administration during the transition period.

And although Aspin has been highly respected and reasonably popular with his colleagues in Congress after 20 years serving a district in Wisconsin in the House of Representatives, the outgoing secretary never had a constituency of his own that Clinton might offend by throwing him over the side. By contrast, if the president had any private notion of supplanting Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders after the flap over her comments on the legalization of drugs, he had to recognize that such a step could have serious repercussions among black leaders.

It is equally true that Aspin provided a full arsenal of ammunition that could be used against him, from his decision on sending additional armor to Somalia to his dustup with Budget Director Leon E. Panetta on the Pentagon budget. He obviously wasn't helped by his political insensitivity in crossing an American Airlines flight attendants' picket line just when Clinton was trying to make nice with organized labor after the nasty fight over the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But even if all that is valid, it is fair to say that Clinton showed a hard edge in his willingness to fire a leading figure in his Cabinet after less than a year in place. The message to others was that this is a president who understands that political survival sometimes demands hard choices and that he is willing to make them.

The replacement of Aspin is not the only change being made after the first year of Clinton's stewardship. There already have been some changes in assignment inside the White House and the Democratic National Committee, and others are expected. But these are moves that could be made by the White House chief of staff, Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, without necessarily involving Clinton directly.

The president also will earn some credit from Washington insiders for the way the replacement of Aspin was carried out. By the time the final decision was made, Clinton already had a BTC strong successor waiting in the wings, thus forestalling speculation about what kind of choice should be made. It was, as politicians like to say, a surgical strike.

Clinton's handling of the Aspin situation was made all the more striking because he had developed a reputation as someone who could be pushed around. It was founded on such things as his decision to yield to Hispanic-Americans and drop Bill Daley for secretary of transportation in favor of Federico F. Pena and his decision to back away on the nomination of Lani Guinier to become head of the Justice Department's civil rights division.

Clinton also was seen as one of many president who are reluctant to do the dirty work of firing someone face to face. But this picture of a "soft" Clinton may be a bum rap, at least to a degree. During the 1992 campaign and transition, for instance, Clinton was willing to see his old friend and campaign chairman, Mickey Kantor, shunted aside because of conflicts with other political advisers.

The president's willingness to replace Aspin doesn't necessarily mean there will be other major changes in the administration entering its second year. Some White House advisers to Clinton are clearly miffed at Attorney General Janet Reno because of her penchant for going her own way on issues without consulting them. But Reno's independence has made her popular enough with the electorate so that she is not likely to be in any jeopardy.

But the lesson from the Aspin affair is that Clinton is willing to do the dirty work if it is politically necessary.

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