Chief of Staff Considers Governor's Race
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 1998; Page A1
In a city full of raised voices, Erskine B. Bowles made understatement his signature. Then last week a news release came roaring out of the White House, about as understated as cannon fire.
"Erskine Bowles," the first sentence read, "today announced $365,000 in new federal resources to help the state of North Carolina respond to a major fish kill on the Neuse River . . ."
With his native Tarheel state suffering a plague of toxic algae, the White House chief of staff assembled a group of North Carolina officials and reporters in the Roosevelt Room to let them know he is on the case.
Usually it's the president or vice president who gets to announce new federal funding. But there was no mystery about the publicity blast by Bowles: He is seriously weighing a plan to run for governor of North Carolina after his departure as President Clinton's top aide by year's end.
That ambition, however, is itself something of a mystery.
For nearly two years, Bowles has seemed to relish his reputation as Washington's miscast man. The 53-year-old investment banker signaled his desire to leave one of the nation's most powerful jobs nearly from the moment he took it. He hated going on television and hardly ever did. He told one and all that "I am not a politician," and that the private sector was his "natural habitat." Even admiring aides sometimes heard a note of sanctimony in the boss's constant talk about how eager he was to leave the bombast of politics for the more tangible satisfactions of "doing deals" in business.
On top of all this, Washington this year has become virtually a caricature of the things Bowles disdains. His efforts to craft a compromise on Capitol Hill over major anti-smoking legislation died amid partisan recriminations. And the White House has been consumed by the Monica S. Lewinsky controversy an investigation that subordinates say Bowles finds professionally distracting and personally distasteful.
So, after all this, it looks as if Bowles may at last be about to go home only to make politics his "natural habitat" after all.
Bowles, in an interview last week, said he has not decided. But he sounded as if he were already running: "Leadership is the key to 99 percent of all successful efforts. I believe my experience in the private sector and the public sector has truly prepared me to lead North Carolina into the 21st century."
In part, Bowles is listening to the calls of well-connected North Carolina business and political leaders looking for a strong Democrat to run in 2000 after the retirement of popular Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. (D), now serving his fourth term. Many believe that Bowles's business background, his Washington experience, his moderate ideology and, not least, his ample personal fortune would be a potent combination, especially before a state electorate whose instincts are increasingly Republican.
But Bowles is also responding to a more personal call.
His father, Hargrove "Skipper" Bowles, who died at 66 of Lou Gehrig's disease in 1986, remains for many a legendary figure in North Carolina politics a figure of enormous promise stopped short.
In 1972, the elder Bowles was one of the first of a breed that later became familiar the businessman-turned-politician. Erskine Bowles was his campaign manager. Running as an insurgent, Skipper Bowles stormed past more conventional Democrats in the primary to win the Democratic nomination for governor. His election was taken as a given in what was then a Democratic state. Then, weeks before the election, polls showed his Republican foe gaining, lifted by President Richard M. Nixon's national sweep. On Election Day, Bowles lost narrowly.
"There's still a Skipper Bowles cult," said political consultant Robert Squier, who made commercials for the Bowles campaign and now advises Vice President Gore. "He was one of the most charismatic candidates I've ever worked for. . . . You could take any slice of any conversation he had and put it on TV unspliced."
Genial yet soft-spoken, the son does not have the father's natural charisma. But some of Erskine Bowles's confidants say he believes running for governor would be a way to complete unfinished family business.
Becoming an elected leader, rather than a top staff hand, would also be a way to build on a Washington tenure that has not completed as much business as Bowles would have liked.
A year ago, Bowles's reputation in the capital was riding high. After a first term defined largely by partisan standoffs with the GOP, Bowles's presence suggested a new model for the Clinton administration. Bowles, after all, considers himself a friend of North Carolina Sens. Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth, Republicans who are among the most despised figures in many quarters of the White House.
His style is to try to strip policy debates of their personal and ideological rancor and, in closeted talks with the opposition, to find a way to cut a deal. The model worked exactly as it was supposed to last year when he served as the lead strategist and negotiator in Clinton's successful bid to strike a balanced-budget agreement with congressional Republicans.
But that model never produced another success of similar scale. Instead, there were setbacks. Clinton, again relying on Bowles's silky back-room negotiating style, still could not rally enough reluctant Democratic votes to win enhanced "fast-track" authority to negotiate free-trade agreements. Clinton and Bowles promised to revive the issue this year but, after counting votes, decided against it.
At the end of last year, Bowles was prepared to return to North Carolina. Instead, in a series of talks in the Oval Office and on the golf course, Clinton persuaded him to stay. Many White House aides, who had seen West Wing chaos earlier in Clinton's tenure, breathed a sigh of relief that Bowles was staying to provide organizational ballast.
But no one least of all Bowles anticipated the turbulence that was coming. Just weeks after Bowles said he was staying, the Lewinsky controversy broke.
Bowles has distanced himself from the handling of that threat because, aides said, of a visceral distaste for the entire subject of personal scandal and for Washington's prosecutorial culture. But some were critical of his decision, particularly in the opening days of the controversy, when the White House's response seemed tepid and uncertain. "He's been a ghost on this; it's like he is not even here," said one longtime adviser to the Clintons not long after the controversy erupted.
Bowles said he believes his approach was correct. With everyone but lawyers and a few political advisers uninvolved and uninformed about the controversy, he said, the rest of the staff can concentrate on policy. "Nobody else spends time on it none and that's a plus," he said.
What Bowles wanted to spend his year on most of all was passage of broad anti-smoking legislation. Coming from a tobacco-growing state, he said, he believed he had special credibility to help Clinton craft a workable compromise. All last spring, there were meetings and phone calls with GOP leaders. But in June the bill died in the Senate. "This is what I believe is the worst of Washington," Bowles fumed at a postmortem news briefing. "I think politics stopped this thing cold."
Numerous White House officials said Bowles was particularly embittered by the performance of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). Lott, aides said, had given the White House assurances that he wanted to pass a bill, but in the end, in what the Clinton team believes was either weakness or deception, he let his GOP colleagues kill it. "Erskine felt double-crossed," said one senior administration official who worked closely on the tobacco issue.
Bowles, for his part, sounds more sympathetic than his aides. Lott, though he tried, could not keep the divided Republicans in line, he said. "He's got a very strong-willed caucus," Bowles said. "I've got one guy."
Yet the failed negotiations seem to have affected the chief of staff's philosophy about working with Republicans. One of Bowles's last major tasks before leaving is to negotiate passage of the 13 annual spending bills this fall. In recent days, he has traded barbed public letters with GOP leaders, saying they will be to blame if there is a government shutdown because of failure to reach agreement. The letters are part of a confrontational approach that is entirely new for this chief of staff.
"Erskine's philosophy is that you work in good faith but don't play the sucker," said White House economic adviser Gene Sperling.
White House aides close to Bowles say there is something almost poignant about how his year has progressed. He stayed in Washington reluctantly, then found the capital's work stymied by politics and scandal. "Erskine believes in getting things done," said White House domestic policy chief Bruce Reed. "That's not usually Washington's first choice."
On the wall of his West Wing office, Bowles has posted a New Yorker cartoon showing a hapless fellow roasting in the flames of hell. The caption: "On the other hand, it's great to be out of Washington."
But Bowles said he does not regard the year as a bust, pointing to Clinton's China trip and last week's passage, after years of effort, of the administration's overhaul of worker-training programs as achievements. "Life is full of surprises," he said mildly. "I'm not disappointed I stayed."
But it is clear Bowles's mind is increasingly focused on leaving. And as he considers whether to follow in his father's footsteps, it is clear he will have all the high-profile support he needs. During a political coming-out trip to North Carolina last month, Bowles shared the stage with Clinton and Hunt neither of whom saw any advantage in subtlety. Clinton said that there was "no single person in America more responsible" for the 1997 balanced budget deal. Hunt (who has promised to stay neutral in a Democratic nominating contest) called him "probably the best chief of staff any president has had in the history of America."
Bowles himself seemed to be laying it on thick. Aware that some people wonder whether he is too reserved to run for office, he tried to show he can pump up crowds with pep-rallyish remarks at an environmental event and a Democratic fund-raiser.
"He'd get a real warm reception if he came back" as a candidate, said John Ambrose, a professor at North Carolina State University, after hearing Bowles warm up a Democratic crowd in Raleigh. "He comes across as much warmer, much more in touch with people than I thought."
But Bruce Lightner, a longtime Democratic activist in the state, said Bowles would be playing against type as a candidate. "My sense is he struggled to do what he did today," Lightner said after hearing Bowles speak. "He'd be a good governor, but I don't think he's the kind of guy for that type of mission. He's much more of an inner-circle guy."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company