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THE EDUCATION OF A PRESIDENT : After six months of quiet success and loud failure, Bill Clinton talks about the frustrating process of figuring out his job.

August 01, 1993|JACK NELSON and ROBERT J. DONOVAN | Jack Nelson is The Times' Washington Bureau chief; Robert J. Donovan is the author of "PT 109" and a two-volume history of the Truman presidency

It is 6:30 on a Saturday morning and President Clinton has summoned half a dozen of his closest advisers to the West Wing office of White House Chief of Staff Thomas (Mack) McLarty. Sunlight filters in through the big corner windows, but the mood is somber. Vice President Al Gore sits hunched over a word processor as political consultant Paul Begala stands at his elbow, offering suggestions. The President's eyes are rimmed with red. His aides' faces are drawn with tension and lack of sleep. They worked late the night before and were back almost before dawn.

Tap, Tap, Tap. The word processor clicks away.

The date is May 29. The White House has reached what Clinton and his supporters hope is the nadir of his first year in power. Though he had come to Washington promising "the most productive 100-day period in modern history," he has stumbled so often and so badly in his first months that the public has begun to question his basic competence. Republicans in the Senate have killed his economic stimulus package. Moderate Democrats complain that the President has veered too far to the left. Gays, feminists and blacks accuse him of procrastinating and temporizing. And Time magazine has put a tiny photograph of Clinton on its cover, under huge block letters: "The Incredible Shrinking President."

No President since World War II has faced such relentless and vitriolic criticism in the beginning of his term; his May approval rating had plunged below 40%, a record low at such an early stage.

Now, Clinton is at a turning point, ready to acknowledge how grim things are and how much he has to learn. The former Arkansas governor finally understands that what he and his senior aides do not know about Washington is killing them, and he has decided to shake up his staff and bring in a new, more experienced hand. His choice: David Richmond Gergen, a longtime confidant--and a Republican--whose principal job will be to show them all how Washington works.

Gergen, tall as a professional basketball player, with thinning blond hair, stands expressionless near the President. As the vice president, who normally leaves such chores to others, pecks out the announcement statement, camera crews begin setting up in the Rose Garden. A press conference has been hastily arranged for 7:30, a most unusual hour, because news of the appointment has leaked, spreading anguish and uncertainty among an already demoralized White House staff.

The 51-year-old Gergen brings with him the cachet of advising three Presidents: Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan. Yet among those gathered here, there is no impulse to cheer his appointment. For almost everyone present--McLarty and his two deputies, Mark Gearan and Roy Neel, communications director George Stephanopoulos and press secretary Dee Dee Myers, it is a clear reflection of how ineptly the inexperienced White House team had operated. Their problems had begun with a little-known but colossal blunder in the transition team: Though it had studied the operations of every other major government agency, it assigned no one to study the workings of the White House. And unable to shift from campaign mode, it made staffing decisions with an eye to rewarding loyal campaign workers instead of considering the broader task of governing.

Failing to develop White House strategies "was an insane decision," says a senior Clinton aide. "We knew more about FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the Tuna Commission than we did about the White House. We arrived not knowing what was here, had never worked together, had never worked in these positions."

Gergen's assessment of the operations to date is blunt. A public-television commentator and an editor of U.S. News & World Report, he'd recently said that the Clinton presidency had gone from troubled to "perilous."

Tap, tap, tap. Not until the word counselor pops onto the word processor's screen do some who are looking over the vice president's shoulders even know the title the President has decided to bestow on Gergen. It had been rumored that he would be named communications director, a title he held in the Reagan White House. But suddenly it is clear that he will have a much broader mandate.

Stephanopoulos, who after today will concentrate full-time on advising Clinton and turn the communications department over to Gearan and Gergen, looks devastated. At 32, he is the youngest member of the President's innermost circle, and no one had been a more trusted adviser. Countless photographs from the New Hampshire primary to the Oval Office show him at Clinton's side like a younger brother, his dark head leaning close to whisper a suggestion or advice. Yet the President had held the idea of the Gergen appointment so close that Stephanopoulos knew nothing about it until the decision had been made.

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