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Clinton Loses a Public Servant of True Character

Christopher: He's been an adult, the rock of the Cabinet, in an administration of preening peacocks and roosters.

November 07, 1996|TOM PLATE | Times columnist Tom Plate teaches in UCLA's policy studies and communication studies programs. E-mail: tplate@ucla.edu

For months now, former Los Angeles lawyer and North Dakota native son Warren Christopher, 71, has been thinking of what to do with the rest of his life. On Tuesday, he told President Clinton, triumphant in reelection, that he would soon be stepping down as secretary of state.

Let us look at Christopher's tenure.

For starters, he will be one Clintonite to have made it through the first term untainted by foolishness, cupidity or scandal. In this administration, that's no minor achievement. Said an admirer of Christopher, still involved in the administration, "Clinton could have used a few more adults like Chris."

And America always can use more public servants who don't need to be on TV interview shows every week to feel good about themselves. "Whenever we would propose to Chris putting someone flashy on the Sunday Brinkley show instead of him, he'd say: 'Great, no problem--let Madeleine [Albright] do it,'J" said White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry, who earlier worked for Christopher.

McCurry, aware of the negative press coverage after Christopher was pictured dozing during international meetings, observed, "After a horrible all-night plane flight overseas, when he has to endure some endless, dreary foreign ministers' summit and he's subjected to some gasbag speech, he'll take a catnap right there in front of the speaker. But, believe me, he was always awake when he had to be."

And Clinton always can use someone who doesn't lose his temper except when he does it for effect. "People who only see Secretary of State Christopher when he's talking in public in his extremely restrained and carefully controlled and targeted manner don't see the whole person," Clinton told The Times some weeks ago. "In all the years I've been with him and in all the tense circumstances we've been in, I've never seen him raise his voice in private. I've never heard him a single time use a curse word. I've never heard him one time get into what you might call a personal argument with somebody . . . . So in that sense what you see in public is what you see in private."

"He has mastered the art of strategic silence," said former State Department official Mark Steinberg, now a special envoy to Bosnia. "And he doesn't let himself feel awkward about it. It's hugely effective because it throws people around him off. You can accomplish a lot by saying nothing. And often he does."

So when Clinton names a new secretary of state, he might well ponder the volume of virtues that this former member of the Los Angeles firm of O'Melveny & Myers represents: Extreme loyalty to friends and colleagues; a faith in the institutions of government and the Constitution; respect for careerists in the State Department as well as on his personal staff; discretion approaching squareness (a gift from a foreign leader, whatever its value, goes right into State Department archives; Christopher will not keep so much as an antimacassar). The Clinton administration has employed more than its share of characters; this is one public servant with actual character.

But he has been an odd-man in. Souped-up environments favor peacocks and roosters. Almost always, self-effacing figures like Christopher, non-charismatic, media-averse, not given to sound bites, have a short life span in Washington. Yet in the world capital of elephantine egos, it's the low-maintenance, low-profile Christopher who has often been described as the rock of Clinton's Cabinet.

"When people see him in public, because he is so restrained and straightforward, because he tries to be so precise, they might not realize how smart he is," said the president. "I think he is one of the most remarkable people I've ever known."

The president might be wise to let this introverted man have a very large say in the selection of his successor (speculation centers on Anthony Lake, the president's national security assistant; former Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell and Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations), just as four years ago Christopher had a big say in the selection of Al Gore as Clinton's running mate.

Warren Christopher, whatever his perceived limitations, does seem to know something about public service.

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