Clinton's steady inner circle Key advisers show continuity from first term


WASHINGTON -- In President Clinton's first term, four people did stints in the office now occupied by press secretary Mike McCurry, four White House counsels came and went, and most of the Arkansans who accompanied Clinton to Washington were pushed aside.

Clinton is also on his third White House chief of staff, and the two best-known aides from the 1992 campaign, George Stephanopoulos and James Carville, have turned in their White House passes to be pundits.

Yet despite the appearance of nonstop staff turnover, the hidden theme of the Clinton White House is stability. Six months into his second term, the team of advisers helping Clinton lead the nation possesses White House experience, an understanding of the president's quirks and knowledge of what he wants to accomplish.

In fact, almost all the current top advisers were around in the first term as key aides. Some left but have returned. Others have been promoted through the ranks.

"It's almost total continuity," says political director Douglas Sosnik. "Having the experience of a first term gave the president the benefit of knowing the type of staff he wants -- and which people he liked working with."

In the first term, the five advisers Clinton relied on most heavily were first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, White House lawyer Bruce Lindsey and chief of staff Leon E. Panetta. In the second term, the lineup is almost the same: Mrs. Clinton, Gore, Rubin, Lindsey -- and Erskine Bowles, Panetta's replacement.

Of the five, the publicity-shy Rubin may seem -- at least outside the White House -- the most unlikely. A wealthy former partner at the New York investment house Goldman, Sachs & Co., Rubin contributed to Clinton's 1992 campaign, assumed the helm of the president's economic team after the inauguration and became Treasury secretary in 1995 after the departure of Lloyd Bentsen.

Rubin helps give Clinton credibility on Wall Street. Moreover, his counsel -- he recommended, for example, bailing out the Mexican peso in 1995 after Congress shied away from it -- has repeatedly proved its worth to Clinton.

"He's the one person on the staff who, when he speaks, Clinton will put down his pen and stop doing his crossword puzzle," McCurry says.

Last week, when a budget compromise was struck with the Republicans, liberal Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York not only surprised many by showing up at a White House rally -- but he singled out Rubin for specific praise.

"Other than the three principals -- Gore, the first lady and Clinton -- Rubin has been the most influential person in the first five years," Sosnik says.

The other indispensable aide is Lindsey. A closed-mouth Arkansas lawyer, Lindsey is equally comfortable representing the White House in tobacco talks or keeping Clinton company by playing hearts with him on Air Force One.

He alone among staff members travels everywhere with the president. He also possesses the Arkansas institutional memory that allows him to oversee the White House response to the investigations the Clintons have faced.

Lindsey keeps a low profile, a strategy the first lady is emulating to a degree. In the first term, Mrs. Clinton publicly led the fight for health reform, attended senior staff meetings, hired people on her own hook and issued advice to her husband in the presence of others.

First lady more low-key

Aides say that she has been more circumspect in the second term but that her influence with her husband has not waned.

"The first lady usually advises him in private," says one top aide. "Neither I, nor anyone else here, knows exactly what is said, but it's clear he listens to what she says and respects her advice."

Carl Anthony, a noted historian of presidential wives, asserts that influential first ladies have been the rule, rather than the exception -- and that Mrs. Clinton is following a long tradition. What is relatively new, however, is a vice president as a political partner and senior adviser to the president.

Gore delivers a stock speech in which he mocks himself by reciting the humorous quips of past vice presidents on the general uselessness of the office.

But since Walter Mondale held the job -- and continuing through George Bush and Dan Quayle -- the duties have evolved from attending the funerals of dictators to being a super-aide who can offer frank advice without much fear of being reprimanded or removed.

"Believe me, Gore's advice can be blunt," says one administration lawyer. According to two aides who were present at a top-level White House meeting -- and after it was revealed that the Democrats had brought the comptroller of the currency to one of the White House fund-raising coffees -- Gore told Clinton, "There's no way we can defend this, Mr. President."

Clinton heeded Gore's advice, admitting at a subsequent news conference that the incident was a "mistake."

Private lunches

Once a week, Clinton and Gore meet in private in Clinton's study. There they eat lunch, usually soup, and hash out policy and politics in a session that sometimes lasts 90 minutes.

"It's clear they do a lot of business in there," McCurry says. "And that [meeting] is almost never taken off the schedule."

Clinton also seeks advice from friends and informal advisers. These include Baltimore author Taylor Branch, former Urban League President Vernon Jordan, commentator Sidney Blumenthal and former campaign aides such as Carville and his partner, Paul Begala. Impressed by their counsel, Clinton recently asked Blumenthal and Begala to join his administration. Both accepted.

Formerly, Clinton spoke to his political guru Dick Morris this way -- often several times a day. Today, the men speak infrequently. Morris' fortunes changed suddenly last summer on the day of Clinton's triumphant speech to the Democratic convention after news leaked of a liaison with a Virginia prostitute who said Morris let her listen to presidential phone calls.

"My guess is that the president has spoken with him five times since then," one aide says. "I think it's primarily because he doesn't want it to look like he dropped a guy who was down."

Morris offers a slightly different version. "When you advise Clinton, you conduct a tutorial -- and he absorbs it. He takes it all in," Morris says in a telephone interview from the south of France. "He doesn't need me now because he knows what I have to offer. He squeezes you like an orange, then lays you aside."

But not everyone was set aside, and some who were squeezed dry rejuvenated themselves and have come back for more.

Begala's return

Begala, scuttled after 1994, is returning from Texas to the Clinton fold. Deputy White House chief of staff John Podesta has come back after recharging his batteries as a Georgetown professor. Podesta is a low-key lawyer with a ready laugh. Colleagues consider him efficient at handling a multitide of problems at once -- and a possible successor to Bowles as chief of staff.

Bowles, too, left the administration for a while and had to be persuaded by Clinton to return as chief of staff. But Bowles, who left his family in North Carolina this time, made it clear he saw his mission as getting a budget deal -- and that he intended to leave soon after that goal was accomplished.

Asked last week when he might be going, Bowles quipped that although he was heading to North Carolina for the weekend, "Unfortunately, I have a round-trip ticket."

The aide mentioned most prominently as a potential Bowles successor is Samuel R. Berger, who served as deputy national security adviser in the first term under Anthony Lake.

Berger was elevated into the top job for the second term. Berger's passion is the same as Clinton's -- Democratic politics -- and the two seem to enjoy an easy rapport.

Another possibility for chief of staff is Franklin D. Raines, the intelligent and affable budget director who joined the administration last year. Two aides said they believed that Clinton would love to be the first president to put an African-American in the job.

Like Bowles and Rubin, Raines is an investment banker with little political experience. But Clinton -- who has never had any money to speak of and not much real-life experience outside government -- seems drawn to such people.

"They don't need a job in the White House to gussy up their resumes," says one former Clinton aide. "He's impressed by that and attracted to it because he feels he can trust those guys."

Many Democrats fretted that with the ascension of such men to power -- coupled with the departure of committed liberals such as Stephanopoulos, Panetta and his deputy Harold Ickes -- the second Clinton term would veer in a more conservative direction.

Rahm Emanuel, the influential aide who replaced Stephanopoulos, is a political centrist who has gone so far as to bait the American Civil Liberties Union. Bruce Reed, who has been elevated to domestic policy adviser, is more soft-spoken than Emanuel, but he is also a moderate.

So far the fears of liberals seem unfounded. Some have been promoted, among them White House economic adviser Gene Sperling. Others have been brought in, most notably new communications director Ann F. Lewis.

Probably most important, the staff appears to take its cue from Rubin, a man who made it in the business world while retaining core liberal Democratic values.

Although only eight years older than the 50-year-old Clinton, Rubin has assumed the father-figure role originally envisioned for Bentsen. Today, he is the only Cabinet member who attends the daily senior staff meeting in the Oval Office.

"He proved himself in the outside world by the toughest of judges -- the financial markets -- and he provides excellent economic advice and combines it with compassionate policies," says Lewis. "He's the senior statesman of the administration. And he's been here the whole time."

Clinton's circle of second-term advisers

Stability: Six months into his second term, the term of advisers helping Clinton lead the nation possesses White House experience, an understanding of Clinton's quirks and knowledge what he wants to accomplish.

Vice president: Al Gore is seen as a "super-aide" who can offer frank advice to the president.

Chief of Staff: Erskine Bowles left his firts administration, only to return to replace Leon Panetta.

First lady: Hillary Clinton usually offers the president advice in private, but it's clear he listens.

Lawyer: Bruce Lindsey, an Arkansan, is the staff member who travels everywhere with the president.

Treasury secretary: Robert E. Rubin came from Wall Street and helps the president's credibility there.

Pub Date: 8/03/97

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