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West Wingers Prepare to Campaign for Lower Office

November 06, 2000|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — This is what it's really like in the West Wing of the White House: Signs with a drawing of a dog's head are dangling from several office doorknobs.

"I'm here until the last dog dies," the signs lament.

The political purebreds who occupy those offices and similarly plush quarters around the capital are curled up and hoping someone will throw them a bone--in this case, jobs in or out of government.

The mood among 6,000 political appointees, the elite class that runs President Clinton's administration, ranges from high anxiety to ennui to a sense of resignation. By Jan. 20, they all have to clear out, and that's their reality after almost eight years of dominating a federal work force of 1.8 million people.

"Even though the roller coaster felt like it would never stop, it's about to," said a senior executive in one of the agencies. "Really, I never thought it would all end."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 7, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Misspelled--The name of Barry McCaffrey, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, was misspelled in an article Monday on White House staff leaving their jobs in January.

Really, it is a peculiar transition that happens in no other place but Washington. One administration disappears, another follows. Some 6,000 Clintonistas, many transformed but burned out, are replaced with 6,000 newcomers, bright-eyed and ready to serve.

The 14 Cabinet secretaries, to their confidential assistants and clerks and thousands of other relatively important but not well-known wonks, all will have to start finding ways in the weeks after the election to move effortlessly (if traumatically) back into the private sector.

Last spring the local gossip columns were spilling over with announcements about departing big shots. But the movement slowed over the summer as influential trade groups and lobbying firms made it clear that they were waiting to see which party would dominate Congress and the White House before they filled high-level positions.

When Barry McCaffery, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, sent an announcement in to the White House a couple of weeks ago saying he'd be leaving his job in January, more than a few people cracked, "Well, who isn't?"

Though some Cabinet secretaries and their underlings are angling to stick around for a Gore administration, even if the vice president moves into the Oval Office, a good many of Clinton's people will not be welcome or simply will leave. Many want to cash in on their high-octane resumes or want to reinvent themselves. Others just hope to find work.

"I'm worried about the flood of resumes," Elizabeth Fine, a special assistant to the attorney general, said with a sigh. "All those lawyers looking for work. And me."

"What you learn in Washington as a lawyer," she explains, "is not necessarily usable anywhere else. You can take your wonderful title and try to market it, and anywhere else, they don't give a hoot that you can get a senator on the phone or talk to someone high up in the Treasury Department."

But Fine is one of many Clintonistas ready for a break. In the last eight years, first while she was working in the White House counsel's office and later for Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, Fine had three children, juggled home life with her husband, former Clinton speech writer Michael Waldman, and turned 40.

"I guess it's about time I grew up and got a real job," she reports telling her husband on a regular basis. Their dinner conversations these days go something like this:

"Oh, my God," he'll say, "everybody we know is in the same boat, looking for work."

"Oh, my God, how long does COBRA last?" she'll say, referring to the the between-jobs health-coverage extension.

Indeed, even as they finish up reports about programs and policies long dreamed of and developed, these Democrats are pumping up their resumes, calling old friends and wondering about the rest of their professional lives. Several Cabinet secretaries have given deputies last-minute promotions so they have better titles and higher salaries to show off in the private sector.

"The reason I'm still here is because of my commitment to the president, but I'm simultaneously looking around," said Bob Nash, director of presidential personnel. An Arkansan who worked for Clintonwhen he was governor and followed him to Washington, Nash isn't sure he'll head home in January.

"I could go home," he said. "But I have enjoyed life here."

This is also one of those revealing times that belies a well-known Washington myth promoted by the political class, whose members like to insist they're from someplace else, as though service in a presidential administration or as a U.S. senator is a temporary assignment--a sort of extended business trip in Washington.

But when you actually find out how long it's been since these political professionals have been "home," it becomes clear that those who come for a while often stay.

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