WASHINGTON — The resignation of Robert C. (Bud) McFarlane adds another name to the list of White House officials who have succumbed to burnout. Some, like former Chief of Staff James A. Baker III and presidential adviser Edwin Meese III swapped demanding staff positions for more prestigious, but insulated, Cabinet posts. Others, like former Deputy Chief of Staff Michael K. Deaver and former Budget Director David A. Stockman, have left government service entirely.
McFarlane's retirement, taken with the others (including second-tier White House aides), confirms disturbing trends.
There is truth to the explanation that all these presidential aides were exhausted by their workload. The 14-hour days took their toll. The President and, to a lesser extent, Cabinet officers are cushioned by the services of these aides. Not so McFarlane and his colleagues. One second-level White House official, who prides himself on his "civilized working hours," says, "There's no way I or anyone else could avoid being ground down if we were in Bud's position." Another aide who knows McFarlane well says he had been promising his wife "a better deal for years." But burnout is not only the result of long hours and demanding work. It is well known that McFarlane had fought a running battle with White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan. While a source close to McFarlane insists "these problems had been sorted out," others believe McFarlane had tired of the jousting. Noting all McFarlane's "good reasons"--exhaustion, family demands and financial opportunities--an insider said, "Once a guy gets angry, he could come up with a half a dozen reasons to quit."
Regardless of the exact role he played in McFarlane's decision, Regan has now completed his dominance of the White House apparatus. "Everyone now serves at the sufferance of Regan," says one insider. The new national security adviser, Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter, inadvertently confirmed this when he told reporters it was Regan who assured him direct access to the President.
Unfettered access to the President is the key to influence; with access comes the ability to speak on the President's behalf. Now, say the insiders, only Regan can speak for the White House on major decisions in the Administration and with Congress. "The job of a senior aide is to make deals on behalf of the President, to find a way out of collisions," says one insider. "Baker was the best. McFarlane was good. Regan is lousy."
McFarlane's successor, Poindexter, is considered even less politically adept than Regan. His warmest admirers admit he lacks the requisite political skills for dealing with Congress and is often uncompromising with the bureaucracy. And like McFarlane, he displays no discernible ideology.
In this respect Poindexter's appointment was greeted with some relief by Administration hard-liners. A Pentagon official, like others in Defense, praised McFarlane for assuring their views a fair hearing, particularly on arms-control issues. They hope Poindexter will be able to continue to prevent what one hard-liner calls "those professional peacemongers at the State Department from doing end runs around the system."
Pentagon officials have become increasingly concerned about the recent push for arms control, despite their belief that the hard-liners in the Administration outclass the opposition. "State has the weakest team ever, while there's been an astounding degree of continuity at Defense," said one of them. This official points out that Defense Secretary Casper W. Weinberger and his top aides, Fred C. Ikle and Richard N. Perle, have been with the Administration since 1981. The original arms-control moderates at State, Under Secretary Lawrence S. Eagleburger and Assistant Secretary Richard R. Burt, have been replaced by officials with little or no expertise in the arcane matters that constitute the arms-control agenda.
Still, in the post-summit atmosphere, hard-liners fear a weakening of their position. "The old arguments like the need for improved atmosphere in U.S.-Soviet relations now carry more weight," admitted one hawk. What this official and others fear is that Poindexter won't stand up for what they call "the integrity of the interagency system." Or as one Administration hard-liner said, "Sorry, George (Shultz), you can't bring that directly to the President. We must have a National Security Council meeting."
Yet many White House veterans see little likelihood for dramatic change in Administration policy--on arms control or any other pressing issue. Instead they fear that the steady departure of talent will finally undermine the ability of the White House to engage in coherent decision making. "Welcome to Reganland amusement park," says one bitter Administration official. "It's a place where only appearances matter."