As Clinton Adviser, Berger Combines Stagecraft With Statecraft
By John F. Harris
President Clinton hopes that his appearance at a NATO summit in Madrid this week will be one of the defining events of his presidency, but as Sandy Berger, the White House national security adviser, reviewed the schedule last month one thing nagged at him: The trip looked boring.
Berger worried the public would dismiss the summit as another tiresome gathering of foreign leaders. "There was no dramatic focus," he said. "What we had to do was make this real and understandable to people here and in Europe."
So two weeks ago, after scrambling White House advance teams and diplomats across Europe, Berger succeeded in adding two stops to the itinerary. After Madrid, where NATO membership will be extended to nations that once lived under the heel of the Soviet Union, Clinton will go to Warsaw, to welcome the Poles into NATO, and to Bucharest, to tell disappointed Romanians to keep faith that they can join the club someday, but not this time.
In Clinton's second term, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger's job is not just statecraft but stagecraft. And a principal goal of the staging is to convince skeptics that Clinton has big ideas about the world and is capable of implementing them.
This is a challenge for Clinton, whose first-term foreign policy often owed more to improvisation than vision, as he hurtled between crises in Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia -- sometimes averting disaster, sometimes not.
And it is a challenge for Berger, who at age 51 has been a friend of Clinton's for a quarter-century. During the first term, when Berger was deputy to then-national security adviser Anthony Lake, he kept an eye on domestic politics and built bureaucratic consensus, mastering the Byzantine processes by which foreign policy is made.
Yet Berger -- who has spent his career as trade lawyer and ranch hand to a succession of Democratic presidential candidates -- has yet to establish credentials as a foreign policy strategist who can build the visionary legacy Clinton seeks. The man who built his reputation as the capable number two man is only now getting a chance to prove himself as number one.
"As much as anyone else, Sandy kept the national security system functioning in the first term," said Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. negotiator of the 1995 Bosnia peace accord. "He did this through great political horse sense, and an effective, low-key style that reduced friction."
The challenge for him now, Holbrooke said, is to show "he can make policy, not simply make policy work."
Berger bridles at suggestions that he is more mechanic than pilot.
Upon winning his promotion last fall, he ordered a review of the principles guiding Clinton's second-term foreign policy. Among the goals he identified were integrating Eastern and Western Europe without provoking new tensions with Russia; encouraging more open trade; improving shared defenses against "transnational threats" like terrorism and drug trafficking; and encouraging a "strong, stable Asia Pacific community," a policy Clinton seeks to promote by stressing cooperation with China over trade rather than confrontation over human rights.
He has set about articulating these themes -- in speeches and TV interviews -- in a way that already has made him more visible than Lake, who mostly shunned the public eye.
"I've tried," Berger said, "to establish a set of priorities that are on our terms. That doesn't mean we're not going to get hit from the side."
A Steady Visibility
If Berger is more visible than his predecessor, it is nonetheless a steady and flash-free visibility.
In public appearances and interviews, Berger is an amiable figure, quick with a joke. But he remains organically linked to his roots as a lawyer: His style is analytical, his words cautiously chosen.
It is Berger's very conventionality that sets him apart from the more exotic figures in Clinton's new foreign policy team. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright is the first woman to hold that office, a status made even more dramatic by her history as a childhood refugee of the Nazis. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, the only Republican in the Clinton Cabinet, was an iconoclastic senator, who wrote novels and poetry.
And unlike many predecessors -- including flamboyant figures like Henry A. Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski -- Berger does not spring from any particular ideological camp. Lake had a long history of academic books and articles on topics ranging from the Vietnam War to the Third World. Berger rose to power writing political speeches and legal briefs.
Yet there is nothing conventional about the intense personal drive that has propelled him to his current perch. And there is nothing accidental about the particular perch he has landed on.
"This is a 20-year effort," said Eli Segal, a longtime friend. "This is really the arena in which he has always wanted to play. . . . He has an inner clock."
A typical day for Berger begins at 7 a.m. and does not end until 15 hours later. Segal says that on golf outings -- increasingly rare in recent years -- Berger brings two cellular phones, in case the power on one draws down.
This methodical approach has helped make him, by the account of numerous administration officials, the dominant figure in setting second-term foreign policy. It has helped even more that he has known his boss longer than any other person on the White House staff.
They met in 1972 when both were working for the presidential campaign of Democratic presidential nominee George S. McGovern. While strongly against the Vietnam War, friends say, Berger had few of the countercultural attachments that defined many members of his generation. "He was always the guy with the briefcase," said White House deputy chief of staff John D. Podesta, a friend since the 1970s.
Berger grew up in the small upstate New York town of Millerton (his father died when Berger was a small boy). College at Cornell led to law school at Harvard, which led to the Washington law firm of Hogan & Hartson. This in turn, led to affluence. Federal disclosure forms show that Berger and his wife, Susan, a real estate agent, have investment assets of at least $1.3 million and potentially far more. They have two daughters, both grown, and a son in high school.
Berger says government and politics always animated him more than law. Since a four-year stint in the Carter State Department (where he worked as a deputy to Lake), Berger has been part of Washington's Democratic establishment. Among his friends during this time was Democratic fund-raiser and socialite Pamela Harriman; Berger was responsible for Clinton's naming her ambassador to France, and when she died last winter he traveled to Paris to fly back with her body.
Berger knew several presidential hopefuls during the Democratic exile from power, but the one he knew best was Clinton. All through the 1980s, the two stayed in touch, with occasional dinners in Washington. When Clinton made his numbingly long-winded address to the 1988 Democratic National Convention, Berger was there, assuring him that it was not a career-killing disaster.
Throughout the 1992 campaign, he served as foreign policy adviser to Clinton. Berger's goal then, as recalled by campaign veterans, was to make sure the Arkansas governor at least did not get humiliated on foreign policy issues by the more experienced George Bush.
This dependent relationship created an unusual bond. "Sandy provided a comfort level on a subject on which the president was manifestly uncomfortable," said one White House aide.
Once Clinton was elected, Berger was touted as his national security adviser. After flirting with that possibility, according to several administration officials, Berger deferred to the more established credentials of Lake -- whom he had recruited onto the Clinton team.
A man of gentlemanly manners, Lake also was, in the view of many who worked with him, a master of indirection. Berger, blunt-spoken and occasionally profane, rarely leaves people to guess about his meaning. Some officials at the State and Defense departments said Lake could be inscrutable and complained privately that he was not giving their views a fair hearing with Clinton. No such complaints have yet been heard of Berger.
Berger's large West Wing office reflects a man who has blended ambition with a willingness to immerse himself in occasionally dreary detail. "It CAN Be Done," reads a sign on display. And on a nearby shelf is a copy of the book, "Estimating Equilibrium Exchange Rates."
Next Chief of Staff?
Berger soon may be in for a change of office. White House officials said he came close last fall to being named White House chief of staff. The job went instead to Erskine B. Bowles, who has signaled he plans to leave, probably by the end of the year. Berger is considered by many at the White House to be a leading contender to get the job this time, although he has told colleagues that neither Clinton nor Bowles has spoken to him about it.
But the very fact that he is mentioned for the job is a reflection of Berger's political side. During the 1996 campaign he was a regular attendee at the Wednesday night skull sessions of Clinton's political team held in the White House residence. At a recent Oval Office meeting, one aide said, Berger and Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin digressed into a discussion of the intricacies of New York politics and a battle among Democrats over who will run for Senate next year.
Some analysts have criticized this blending of policy and politics. But Berger, with his trade law background and campaign experience, reflects Clinton's wishes, said John Prados, author of a history of national security councils.
"Clinton's frame of reference is domestic, political and economic," said Prados, warning that at times his national security team has risked being "subsumed by politics."
Yet Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), a leading Republican voice on foreign policy, said he has not found Berger unduly partisan, adding that his political side "may even be an asset" if it gives "him a set of skills" in working with Congress.
Berger was a principal strategist -- personally lobbying GOP leaders -- for two recent critical foreign policy votes Clinton has won on Capitol Hill. One was Senate passage, over strong conservative opposition, of a treaty banning chemical weapons. The other was the endorsement late last month in the House, over opposition from both ends of the ideological spectrum, of Clinton's decision to continue granting China most-favored-nation trade status.
Berger, according to administration officials, brings this same approach to what is potentially an even more delicate political problem: forging agreement among the members of Clinton's own foreign policy team. Within the administration, they are known as the "ABC Club" -- for Albright, Berger, Cohen -- and they meet several times a week, for informal lunches and formal meetings with specific agendas. Albright and Berger have known each other for years, and worked together briefly as advisers to Geraldine A. Ferraro's vice presidential campaign in 1984.
So far the ABCs have avoided personal clashes, according to various administration officials, although there have been signs of early tensions over policy that Berger has labored to calm.
The most vivid example has been disagreement between Albright and Cohen over the U.S. mission in Bosnia. Albright has pushed for a more vigorous effort to rebuild Bosnia's political institutions and has recommended keeping open the possibility that U.S. troops may need to stay in Bosnia after the June 1998 deadline for their removal. Cohen has represented the traditional military wariness of performing civilian tasks like monitoring elections or tracking down war criminals, and has held firm on the current exit date.
Berger managed to avoid a full-scale clash this spring by coaxing the two to stop focusing on next year's deadline and toward agreement on what could be done now to move the rebuilding process along. But whether Berger has reconciled differences or merely deferred them is still unknown. "The gap was papered over, but my hunch is it continues," said Richard Haass, a member of President Bush's National Security Council staff who is currently at the Brookings Institution.
Yet Berger's threading of the needle over Bosnia reflects the twin poles of political caution and interventionism that tug at him -- and apparently at Clinton. Berger says they reflect in part their generation's witnessing of American misadventure in Vietnam. "I think it's a balance between what American leadership can do," he said, "and an instinctive understanding that you can sustain that leadership only when the mission is clear, when the public supports you."
While Berger grapples with these large themes, in practice he remains a detail man. On Sunday nights he puts together a "to do" list for the coming week. Last Sunday's contained some 40 items.
They included putting together a memo for Clinton about the state of the Mideast peace process; holding meetings to clarify U.S. policy toward Nigeria; and organizing a task force to study the vulnerability of U.S. "critical infrastructure" such as roads and reservoirs to terrorist attack.
There were calls to be made to European officials in an effort to avert a split among allies in Madrid over how many nations to let into NATO in this first round of expansion. Clinton wants three; France and some other nations are hoping for five.
There also were political questions, such as whether Clinton should hold a news conference on the day of the NATO summit. No, Berger urged: Domestic political questions would inevitably intrude, marring the historic aura of the day.
It was a fairly typical Berger week, made up of fairly typical days. Each begins with a reading of the overnight intelligence reports, leading to a 9:30 a.m. meeting with Clinton in the Oval Office. Meetings and telephoning usually take Berger to about 7 p.m. The last three hours of the day are devoted to paperwork.
Berger confesses that sometimes he is so wired by the time he finally gets home that his idea of winding down is to turn on the Charlie Rose show or C-SPAN.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company