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At 50, Clinton Has Come of Age in White House

August 19, 1996|DOYLE McMANUS | TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

At the same time, the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress "forced some discipline," White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry noted. "Facing a Republican Congress, he had to be more focused."

On another level, Clinton and his staff have worked deliberately to convey a new image of maturity--seeking out events that burnish his image as a leader, highlighting policies that emphasize his concern for children, even changing his suits and ties to convey an older, more middle-aged look. "It works," Greenstein said. "He looks paternal."

And on a third, more elusive level, Clinton is simply older now and different from the man who arrived in Washington nearly four years ago. Then he was in a rush to enact an ambitious program as soon as possible. "I've learned more humility" since then, he told a television interviewer. "There are a lot of things I don't know the answers to that I once thought would be easy to find out."

Sense of Mortality

In his younger years, Clinton sometimes told friends he was haunted by the fact that his father, William Jefferson Blythe, died at 28. "You never really know how much time you have," he once said.

During the last four years, according to aides, several deaths affected the president deeply and reawakened his sense of mortality. Clinton has buried not only his mother, Virginia Kelley, who died in January 1994, but also his father-in-law, Hugh Rodham; a close White House aide, Vincent Foster, who committed suicide; Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown; and a foreign leader he deeply admired, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

"Rabin's death was a real gut check to him," McCurry said. "He said it reminded him that we don't know how much time we have on this Earth."

When he came to the White House in 1993, Clinton tried to run almost everything himself. "Arkansas was a small state, and I could run the place like a country store," he once recalled. But the White House was different: More people wanted time on the president's schedule, more issues demanded to be solved, and every chance comment was magnified by the megaphone of the national media--and often, in Clinton's view, distorted in the process.

In his first year, aides said, Clinton was both a demanding boss, flying into purple rages when his wishes were not carried out, and a lax one. "He was amazingly tolerant of bad performance for a guy who had been elected president of the United States," a former aide said.

He was also badly overexposed. Aides looked at their records in 1994 and discovered that Clinton made almost 500 public appearances of one kind or another during his first year--with disastrous consequences: His message was muddied, his image one of an out-of-control liberal. "We had to learn that more is not better," an aide said.

A key change came in the fall of 1994, when Clinton replaced his first chief of staff, childhood friend Thomas "Mack" McLarty, with former California Rep. Leon E. Panetta. Panetta and his aides set about building a new management structure to impose more discipline on their boss. The change, aides said, was dramatic.

No longer were staff meetings called with loose agendas and looser attendance lists. "These days, if you're not invited, you don't show up," one aide said. "In the first year, you could always talk your way into a meeting."

The process of parceling out the president's time--the most precious commodity in any White House--came under tighter control. "You can still propose things at the last minute, but you have to jump through more hoops to do it," the aide said.

The president's schedulers now leave meetings on political strategy and other favorite Clinton subjects until the end of the day. That way the chief can run late without holding up his other appointments.

And Clinton finally got something he had long asked for: Several hours of free time each afternoon to read, use the telephone and--occasionally--to nap. "He's religious about protecting that time," McCurry said.

Schedule Enforcer

Another important move was giving one official authority to enforce the new schedule. That in-house enforcer is Evelyn Lieberman, a wise-cracking, foghorn-voiced former aide to Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). She acts as the president's gatekeeper, fending off unwanted events and bringing too-long meetings to a close, sometimes by being "deliberately rude," one aide said. "Evelyn's scary, which is just what she needs to be," Stephanopoulos said.

Those changes didn't come in time to avert the voters' turn against Clinton in the 1994 congressional elections, but they helped him recover in 1995.

The loss of Congress brought unexpected benefits for Clinton: He not only had to focus more, but also had to act independently more often. In 1995, Clinton infuriated Democratic congressional leaders by breaking with them to call for a balanced federal budget within seven years--but the episode raised his stature in the eyes of voters.

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