WASHINGTON -- One of the White House aides President Clinton most enjoys is Douglas Sosnik, who travels with Clinton on Air Force One, where they do everything from play cards to plot political strategy.
It's a heady life for a 41-year-old Democratic operative, but the demands of Sosnik's job are relentless.
So, just before Christmas, he told Clinton it was time for him to leave.
That was last Christmas.
Today Sosnik is still considering how to leave a job he figures is the best he'll ever have.
It's a common dilemma for Clinton aides, many of whom are reluctant to go but are becoming resigned to the idea of moving on in the new year.
As 1997 gives way to 1998, the likely departure of Sosnik and other key White House staffers, along with the arrival of their replacements, stands to shape not only the year ahead but also the last three years of Bill Clinton's presidency.
"I've learned a lot about myself," says Sosnik, who has snubbed offers outside government of up to $250,000 a year -- about twice what he makes now -- because they didn't sound exciting enough.
"I thought I'd be gone by now."
So did White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, whom Clinton talked into returning to the administration a year ago after two previous stints.
Bowles considered the latest assignment so temporary that he didn't even bring his family with him from North Carolina. But Bowles, too, is still here.
"No one ever leaves!" shrieks White House press secretary Mike McCurry in mock horror.
"And when new people come in, it turns out they are [aides who have been] recycled."
Something incongruous is at work. By all accounts, working in any White House is a draining experience in which the euphoria of being at the seat of power eventually is tempered by the high stress and long hours.
Moreover, Clinton is hardly considered easy to work for. He loses his temper, procrastinates on making appointments and micro-manages policy initiatives.
Yet, people just seem to stay and stay, and, as McCurry points out, even those who make a clean getaway often return. The reasons vary.
Sosnik and McCurry believe that senior advisers in Democratic White Houses tend to be different from those in Republican ones.
While Ronald Reagan's and George Bush's top lieutenants tended to be older, with successful careers in law or business, those tapped by Clinton have been younger and less established -- men and women for whom the White House was an ultimate goal, not merely a glittering addition to an already impressive resume.
"Democrats of our generation wondered whether we'd ever live to see a Democrat in the White House," Sosnik said.
"It's hard to give it up."
Another factor is the relative youth of the Clinton staff. At a time when Washington is supposedly passe -- and so many of those in the know profess to be jaded or bored -- these young aides are unabashedly wide-eyed.
"It's the chance of a lifetime to see how all this works," says Kevin Moran, a 24-year-old aide in the communications office.
"I feel blessed to be a part of it."
And yet, 1998 is shaping up as a year of transition. Expected changes are the following:
Chief of staff: At a senior staff meeting two days before Christmas, Bowles outlined the accomplishments of 1997 -- and what lay ahead in 1998. Those present found the scene poignant; the unspoken context was that Bowles would not be around to see these goals achieved.
Deputy chief of staff John Podesta broke the tension by quipping, "We know you'll be here in December of '98 giving the same speech."
Many consider that unlikely, although Bowles is now talking of remaining for a significant portion of the new year.
Those most often mentioned as his successor are Podesta, budget chief Franklin D. Raines, national security adviser Samuel R. Berger, retiring California congressman Vic Fazio and John Hilley, the chief congressional lobbyist.
It's not a clear choice.
Raines and Fazio, both of whom have strong credentials, say they don't want the job. Raines, who has three pre-teen daughters, doesn't even want to be asked.
"When you're chief of staff," Raines told one confidant, "your life is not your own."
Podesta and Hilley seem to have the temperament, but not the right resumes. "I'm an inside guy," concedes Podesta, meaning that he's always been a staff member, not a leader.
White House aides say Berger is an obvious choice, but he has spent five years on international affairs and Clinton might be reluctant to shift him while so many foreign policy initiatives, notably Bosnia, are in the sensitive stage.
Communications: This is a network of aides who help Clinton translate his goals into policies -- and then communicate them to Congress, the media and the public.
The four key officials in this broad area for much of the past year have been Donald A. Baer, Rahm Emanuel, Sosnik and McCurry.
Baer, who was the de facto chief speech writer, held the title of director of communications. He left in mid-1997 and was replaced by Ann F. Lewis, a longtime Democratic Party activist and Hillary Rodham Clinton loyalist.
After the 1996 re-election, Emanuel assumed the title and office digs previously held by George Stephanopoulos, the aide closest personally to the president.
Even Emanuel's friends find the 38-year-old Chicagoan arrogant, but Clinton values him as someone who gets things done.
Friends say that since his wife had a baby, Emanuel has become less single-minded -- and covets a job with regular hours.
Family considerations are McCurry's principal reason for wanting move on as well. He has three small children and volunteered in an interview that he is starting to feel guilty about missing so much of their lives.
Sosnik and his wife have no children yet, but he, too, has visions of a more normal home life.
Emanuel, Sosnik and McCurry have assured Bowles that, to avoid disruption, they won't all leave at once.
"All of us here are replaceable," says Sosnik. "Life will go on without us. But the timing matters."
In the meantime, reinforcements have recently been added. They include Paul Begala, a veteran of the 1992 campaign, and journalist Sidney Blumenthal.
Legislative affairs: This shop has been decimated. Hilley, who had headed it, is leaving the White House unless named chief of staff.
In addition, four key deputies have left or are in the process of leaving, including Hilley's top deputy, Susan Brophy, who married widower Gerald S. McGowan, a Washington lawyer recently named U.S. ambassador to Portugal.
Brophy is heading to Lisbon not only as an envoy's wife, but as the new stepmother of five young children.
Legal counsel: Charles F. C. Ruff, hired just under a year ago, is the fifth White House counsel in five years. He gives no indication that he's joining the exodus.
The key person in the office, however, is Bruce R. Lindsey, the loyalist Arkansan whose responsibilities encompass everything from being Clinton's eyes and ears on the tobacco talks to responding to the myriad scandals and would-be scandals dogging the president.
Friends of Lindsey say he'd like out, but others expect him to stay as long as Clinton needs him.
Lanny Davis, the Maryland lawyer who handles inquiries from the media relating to Whitewater, the Democratic fund-raising controversy and other scandals, is leaving Jan. 30 to return to private practice.
Family considerations played a role in Davis' decision, too. His wife, Carolyn, is expecting a child in April.
Domestic policy: The top aides are two 30-somethings, Gene Sperling, the top White House economic adviser, and Bruce Reed, who runs the domestic policy office.
Neither appears to be going anywhere soon.
Sperling is a rumpled workaholic who loves his job -- and Clinton.
The low-key Reed is a moderate Democrat who helped Clinton find the middle ground on issues ranging from crime fighting to welfare reform.
Reed has two small children, but a supportive wife and a keen understanding of the dedication it takes to stay in the big leagues.
"It's not just the White House," he says. "Any job in Washington in which you can make a difference requires long hours."
Pub Date: 12/31/97