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Not Having It All in Washington

Families: They quit the Cabinet, they said, for spouse and kids. The reason doesn't turn as many heads as it used to.

November 28, 1996|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For years in Washington, it was a well-known code phrase. When someone left a high-powered job "for family reasons," it usually meant "fired," "going into rehab" or "trying to patch up the marriage."

But leaving the pinnacle of American political power to accommodate a spouse or children no longer seems so unthinkable. For example, Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich recently announced he was giving up his powerful and prestigious position--"the best job I've ever had and probably ever will"--in the interest of his family, who preceded him in returning home to Cambridge, Mass., more than a year ago.

Reich's family-centered resignation notice was swiftly followed by at least two other high-ranking members of the Clinton administration, who also pleaded family reasons for their departures.

Erik and Elliot Tarloff, the husband and son, respectively, of National Economic Council chief Laura D'Andrea Tyson, had already moved home to California when Tyson said last week that she would reluctantly leave the administration to join them. Assistant Atty. Gen. Deval Patrick, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division, also cited family concerns for his decision soon to jump ship and head home to Boston.

None of the three presidential appointees appeared to have been pressured to leave jobs that all three said they adored. Two of the three--Reich and Patrick--traded important government jobs in areas they felt passionate about for at least interim unemployment. Tyson returned to a comfortable professorship at UC Berkeley that nonetheless lacks the flash of serving as one of President Clinton's top economic advisors.

In the worlds of business or finance, where more and more executives who hit 40 or 50 decide that earning millions of dollars is not nearly as satisfying as building Brio trains with their toddlers, this might not seem so strange. Society no longer blinks twice at investment bankers who announce they would rather write poetry. But the capital has made an art form out of basking in its own cachet. Until recently, official Washington was fairly successful in marketing the myth that governing the world's oldest democracy is a heady endeavor justifying all manners of personal sacrifice, such as a spouse's career or anything resembling domestic tranquillity.

No longer. "Unless you're prepared to say government service trumps all other work, and I'm not," Erik Tarloff said, "there really is a statute of limitations in terms of how long a job can disrupt family life."

What a concept: Family, said Arlene Johnson, vice president of the Families and Work Institute in New York, has become "an important value even compared to being at the center of power in the most powerful country in the world." Placing the family on an equal pedestal with work, agreed Brad Googins, director of Boston University's Center for Work and Family, has become "politically correct, with all the good and bad things that brings with it."

It was Reich who pulled the federal fig leaf off the family with a New York Times op-ed piece decrying the struggle to establish balance between work and family. He loved his job, Reich wrote, he loved his family, and no matter how hard he tried, he always felt he was shortchanging one or the other--or both. "You're never able to do enough of what you truly value," he lamented.

That admission unleashed furious replies from mortals, who said, essentially, no kidding. "You can't have it all, Mr. Reich," one reader responded, adding: "The Sistine Chapel ceiling was painted over long years in poor light by a crotchety old man on dangerous scaffolding for an impossible patron. No one would argue that the man had balance in his life."

Still, the mere fact that these high-ranking Washingtonians would even think to play the family card did help to pull personal considerations out of the professional closet. In the corporate world, said Caroline Nahas, managing director of Korn / Ferry International, a large executive search firm in Los Angeles, it wasn't so very long ago that working women, in particular, shied from talking about family issues for fear that they would be perceived as weak--and specifically, unable to compete with men.

But in the very recent past, Nahas said, confidence levels have grown among many top professionals. No one is quite ready to write down "my family comes first" on an executive resume, but "I think what you're seeing is a sense that 'I know who I am and who I want to be, and I've achieved something in the work world that very few have ever achieved--but at the same time, there are other things that are equally important to me.' " In short, "It's not the job at all costs."

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