You don't see them on the Sunday talk shows, nor testifying before the big congressional committees. You don't often see their names in print because, in their line of work, it's usually better that way.

They live behind the scenes, inhabiting that invisible space of government in which it seems, to outsiders, that little ever really happens amid the daylong buzz of anonymous people meeting at conference tables, typing on terminals and talking on telephones. Most of them remain unknown outside their own Cabinet agencies. But inside they have earned a reputation. These are people who get things done.

In the Clinton administration's first year, a handful of men and women in major departments have established themselves as the "go-to" people, a phrase often attached to them by outside lobbyists, congressional staffers, White House aides, reporters and colleagues.

None of them is really "powerful" in the conventional Washington sense. That term is reserved for the Cabinet members themselves or a few assistant secretaries who run major divisions and have the final say on policy matters. But while they are not officially powerful, they are nonetheless crucial to the exercise of power.

These are the government's gatekeepers. They're not usually deep thinkers or policy makers. They are the day-to-day strategists, the implementers. They wheel, they deal. They work the phones. They find money unexpectedly. They put out brush fires fast. They try to figure out the next step toward getting the bill passed, the appropriation freed, the key congressman mollified, the scandal quieted.

Bill Clinton promised a government that "looks like America" in terms of the race and gender of his most senior appointees. But while Clinton may have largely met his diversity goal in forming a Cabinet, this grouping -- one key player selected from each of 14 Cabinet agencies -- looks a lot different: It is all white, and all but two are male. Many came from the predominantly white male ranks of the Clinton campaign.

They are relatively young -- ranging from 28 to 47, with most in their thirties -- and also relatively green. Some have little or no previous experience within their department, although one old agency hand can claim encyclopedic knowledge after nearly 20 years there.

A few are genuine experts in their fields, such as the accomplished housing lawyer who landed at HUD and the biotechnology expert at EPA. But more often their key qualification is an FO degree. Not a Friend of Bill connection, necessarily, but a Friend of Al, or George, or somebody else with the president's ear.

It is whom you know in the Clinton-Gore cosmos that gets you to this level, rather than what you know about Btu taxes, trade policy or health care. Mostly, these people are wired, or know how to get wired fast.

Eight of the 14 players profiled here are lawyers. Nine are chiefs of staff, although several others have relatively obscure titles that belie their real clout. Some have old school or family ties to the department's boss; at Education, the connection goes back a century. Others had never even met the boss until they interviewed for the job.

This list is by nature somewhat arbitrary. There are thousands of other people who get things accomplished up and down the federal bureaucracy. Most Cabinet members have two or three close aides, not just one, who could be included. These 14 people have landed on the list because of the special role they happen to play right now, based partly on which issues currently are central within their agencies and also on how their personalities, strengths and weaknesses dovetail with those of their bosses.

A list like this could change any day, depending on what issue is no longer hot, or whose friend at the White House got axed. Take Rudy De Leon, special assistant to the secretary of defense, who was the 15th name -- until his boss, Les Aspin, got replaced. So stay tuned . . .



Every morning at 8:30, when the White House hooks up a telephone conference call for Cabinet agencies and other key offices to receive their marching orders, there are usually 14 departmental chiefs of staff on the line and, from the Justice Department, Nancy E. McFadden.

McFadden is not the chief of staff, and does not have a fancy title. She's just one of two deputies to the associate attorney general, Webster L. Hubbell, who himself is merely the No. 3 official at Justice.

But appearances are especially deceiving at Justice. Because of the administration's botched start there -- remember Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood? -- there was no attorney general until well into March. Hubbell, a former Little Rock mayor and law partner of Hillary Clinton, was the de facto attorney general.

With relations still cool between Janet Reno and Clinton, and Justice still in disarray, Hubbell continues to have far more clout than his predecessors, insiders say. He handles civil rights policy, for example, in the absence of a civil rights chief. Reno brought up several assistants from her Florida district attorney operation, including Lula Rodriguez, who is very close to her and functions as a personal chief of staff and gatekeeper, but is not seen as key on policy matters.

Enter the 34-year-old McFadden, a Washington lawyer (in Secretary of State Warren Christopher's firm) with no national political experience before the Clinton campaign. She left the firm in December 1991 to spend a year in Little Rock, working on such things as damage control in the matters of Gennifer Flowers and the draft. The experience left her tightly wired to the White House.

People at other departments see McFadden as someone to go to when the official channels are moving slowly or don't seem to be working at all. She is the one at Justice "who keeps the ball in play," says one lobbyist who deals often with the department. "Whether it's policy or strategy, she's touching all the bases. She'll refer issues to the appropriate people, but to make sure things get done over there, you touch base with Nancy McFadden."


Health and Human Services

When Kevin Thurm boarded a Boeing 747 from New York to London nine years ago last October, he happened to take a seat near a thin, dark-haired man who turned out to be a fellow Rhodes scholar. They introduced themselves and fell into conversation, something about horse racing.

The dark-haired fellow was George Stephanopoulos. The two became friends, and the rest, for Thurm, is history.

When he returned to the States, Thurm went to Harvard Law and began the life of a Wall Street lawyer. Seven years later, in the fall of 1991, Stephanopoulos introduced him to Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

Thurm, 32, who had little experience in politics, became the state campaign director for New York and then for New Jersey. In the process he worked with Clinton insiders such as Harold Ickes, Susan Thomases and Sarah Kovner.

After the election, HHS Secretary Donna Shalala was looking for a chief of staff with close ties to the White House. Her prior Washington experience as an assistant secretary at HUD had convinced her of the importance of having people from the campaign involved in the policy-making process. Kovner recommended Thurm.

The move paid off early, when the White House and various Cabinet agencies engaged in protracted battles over appointments all the way down to the level of deputy assistant secretary.

It fell to Thurm to run interference with the White House, making sure Shalala got all the top assistant secretaries she wanted and that those people in turn got all their picks.

HHS officials like to boast that the team Shalala has assembled is -- within its particular universe -- comparable to the 1927 New York Yankees, filled with such heavy hitters as Nobel laureate Harold Varmus at the National Institutes of Health; Philip R. Lee, architect of Medicare; and welfare reform experts Mary Jo Bane and David T. Ellwood.

"All the people we really went to the mat on, they're all here," says Thurm, who now coordinates the giant department's efforts at the daily senior staff meetings.



At most departments in the Clinton administration, key players have Ivy League or Rhodes scholar ties. The more politically adept among them draw heavily upon prior campaign or Hill experience.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy's chief of staff never went to college. Before coming to the department, he had never worked in Washington and never worked on a major political campaign.

But Ron Blackley speaks farm with a Mississippi drawl as authentic as anyone's. His first job out of high school was working on his uncle's farm. He raised cotton, rice and soybeans, later started an agricultural consulting firm and worked for four years as agricultural adviser to Espy in the then-congress- man's home district in Natchez.

Still recovering from a severe case of housing sticker shock, Blackley, 47, remains something of an outsider in a yuppie-dominated administration; instead of moving into a trendy Northwest or close-in neighborhood, he and his family are out in Woodbridge.

Despite his lack of Washington pedigree, it is Blackley who is at Espy's elbow at the key White House budget meetings. Espy is often on the road, but Blackley is the one who can find him at any time.

And everyone suspects that the Will Rogers, country boy image he projects masks the canniness of an agile pol who has, as one colleague puts it, "a calculator for a brain."

Another colleague says: "He does that Southern white boy thing and drives me crazy, but he's very good" at coordinating matters within the huge department and with the White House. Agriculture's 43 agencies churn out tremendous amounts of paper, correspondence and decisions. Blackley keeps the paper moving, works Espy's schedule and is his designated alter ego when it comes to reviewing his speeches.



Thomas E. Donilon's title, assistant secretary of state for public affairs, doesn't come close to reflecting his real job: political bodyguard for Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Donilon is Christopher's closest aide and the person the White House -- where Donilon was once penciled in for a key job -- relies on to coordinate policy and get things done.

"In any department as big and complex as State, there is always a 'fix-it' guy who you call with a problem that's got to be fixed yesterday," says one top White House aide. "At State, that is Tom Donilon."

Donilon is on the phone several times a day with senior White House officials, especially George Stephanopoulos and David Gergen, Anthony Lake and Lake's deputy, Sandy Berger, making sure everyone is marching to the same drummer.

Christopher, who was deputy secretary of state in the Carter administration, knows the building and how it works. Donilon knows how the White House works. At 38, Donilon is one of the most seasoned political operatives in the Clinton administration. He worked in the congressional liaison office of the Carter White House as a kid just out of Catholic University. He was chief delegate hunter and convention manager for Jimmy Carter in 1980 and helped run the Mondale campaign in 1984. He helped in Joe Biden's short-lived presidential effort, and then became a political analyst for CBS News in the 1988 primaries. In 1992, he assisted in preparing Clinton for his campaign debates.

Donilon is no expert on foreign policy. But he is a voracious reader and fast learner who participates in all critical policy meetings. "He knows the substance well enough to handle policy questions," says one colleague, "and he's political enough to know how it will play."

Donilon and Christopher, who are former law partners, have gone through some exceptionally rough times this past year, as the administration lurched from one foreign policy crisis to another. There is constant speculation that Christopher will follow Defense Secretary Les Aspin out the door.

One reason Christopher may continue to stick around while Aspin is gone, some officials believe, is that Aspin lacked a close aide with a keen sense of internal and external politics. As one White House official has said, Donilon is expert at "detecting the scent of trouble before it's a stink."


Veterans Affairs

VA Secretary Jesse Brown came to the agency from Disabled American Veterans. His chief of staff, Gabby Hartnett, also came from the disability rights movement. Both men knew a lot about the program pieces at the agency, but not much about the splendors of the federal bureaucracy.

Deputy Secretary Hershel W. Gober, Clinton's veterans affairs boss in Little Rock, is the VA's Arkansas and White House connection. But he was also unfamiliar with this agency of approximately 250,000 employees who run 171 hospitals, 233 clinics, 119 nursing homes and more on a budget of $35 billion.

So when those three need something to happen in the VA, they call on Richard Pell Jr., the deputy chief of staff and a career employee who has been with the VA for 19 years. Pell, 45, was chief of staff for Bush's secretary, Edward Derwinski, and assistant chief to Reagan's VA administrator, Thomas Turnage.

Pell "is the guy {Brown and Gober} go to see to find out what buttons they have to push," says one inside source. "He knows the agency to the point where he knows if he's going to need a hammer or just a nudge."

Last July, the government was about to release the most comprehensive study ever done on the cancers and other illnesses suffered by Vietnam veterans exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange. The VA seemed paralyzed in preparing for it, according to agency sources, even though Brown well understood the far-reaching political and economic implications of the pending report. "We were all looking at each other," one source says, "but no one seemed to be able to get going."

It was Pell who took command of putting together a package of programs and materials about the compensation, medical, legislative, public relations and other components of the issue. When the announcement came down, the VA and its 58 regional offices appeared well-prepared to respond to a rush of inquiries, according to people inside and outside the agency.


Housing and Urban Development

The key to Bruce J. Katz's effectiveness at HUD is not that he's wired to the White House (he's not) or that he's known Secretary Henry J. Cisneros for many years (they met the day before Cisneros's confirmation hearing), or that he's a longtime Democratic Party worker (not really) or that he has vast experience in the agency (he has none at all).

What makes the 34-year-old chief of staff effective is that, in five years as staff director of the Senate subcommittee on housing and urban affairs, Katz, a housing lawyer, helped draft and pass many of the significant housing laws that the department oversees.

That experience wouldn't have been quite as significant at some other departments, such as State or Justice. But the Reagan-Bush years left a housing policy void that the Democratic-controlled Hill committees scrambled to fill, developing the legislation and pushing it into law.

Scrambling -- and coming up with new ways to get things done -- is critical at an agency that's basically broke when it comes to funding new programs. Responding to the cash crunch, Katz and other key aides came up with a plan. They would leverage a $20 million HUD contribution with an additional $60 million of housing money put up by a consortium of private community development foundations to help community-based groups build affordable housing. The idea was to work out a public-private partnership rather than try to pump the money through the usual HUD bureaucracy.

It's that sort of innovation that led one administration official to call Katz "visionary." That might be a bit overstated, but even so, it's not a word heard too often in Washington.



Last July, as floods devastated the Midwest, Secretary of Labor Robert Reich joined Bill Clinton at a meeting in St. Louis with governors from the hardest-hit states. As they sat around the horseshoe-shaped table, Reich passed out millions of dollars in Labor Department grants to the governors so they could hire people to help with cleanup efforts.

"You're the only guy in my administration with any money," Clinton joked to Reich.

Not true. But Reich is the only one with Kathryn (Kitty) Higgins as his chief of staff. It was Higgins who had discovered just a few days before that the White House had been working with several agencies to assemble a flood relief package, but had forgotten to include Labor and was unaware it could play a role.

Because Higgins had worked at Labor from 1968 to 1978, she knew the department had money tucked away in its budget that could be used to put people to work on cleanup projects. States were notified, applications submitted, and within 48 hours, five state grants were approved.

Higgins, 46, who did not know Reich before he interviewed her in January, supplies more than department experience as a top aide to Reich. She has 12 years of Hill experience, first as Democratic staff director for the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee and then as chief of staff for Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.). She also was part of the Carter White House's Domestic Policy Council, where she worked closely with now-Deputy Labor Secretary Thomas Glynn (who was at ACTION in those days). Reich didn't know of the connection when he hired the two for their current jobs.

Together again, Higgins and Glynn divide between them the main issues of the day, and decide what to bring to Reich's attention in their end-of-the-day meetings with the secretary.



It was raining cats and dogs one day last March when William Mendenhall (Billy) Webster IV, businessman, lawyer and marathon enthusiast, went jogging through the streets of Washington. Running alongside him that morning was William Jefferson (Bill) Clinton, who had invited Webster to join him.

Not bad for a minor bureaucrat in a minor Cabinet department. But Webster has been running with Clinton for years now, ever since they met at the annual New Year's networking extravaganza, Renaissance Weekend, at Hilton Head, S.C., nearly a decade ago.

When Clinton began his campaign in South Carolina on a beautiful sunny morning in November 1991, Democratic Gov. Richard W. Riley met the candidate at the airport with a handful of people. Among them was Webster, then heading a company that owned 27 Bojangles Famous Chicken 'n' Biscuit restaurants in the state.

Webster, who had kept up with Clinton since their Hilton Head encounter, became the finance chairman and heart of the South Carolina campaign. When Riley came to Washington as education secretary, Webster joined him as chief of staff.

The 35-year-old Webster didn't work in the Carter, Mondale or Dukakis campaigns, so he has no network of friends from those efforts. He is not a Washington hand. He also has no expertise on education issues, though he says experience in hiring young people for the fast food business showed him first-hand some of the failures of public education.

But in a town where clout can be a function of whom you know and how well you know them, Billy Webster has it. He has known Riley all his life; their family connections go back several generations. And he has as good a tie to the Oval Office as any agency chief of staff.



When President Clinton's oldest Cabinet member, 72-year-old Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, made then-27-year-old Joshua Steiner the administration's youngest chief of staff last August, he chided him: "When I was your age, I was in Congress."

Steiner took the message to mean that he shouldn't think he was such hot stuff. But it also meant that Bentsen knew the frustrations of someone so young surrounded by older and far more senior officials.

Steiner, who started out a year ago as deputy to the deputy secretary, Roger C. Altman, established himself early as someone well-connected at the White House. One frustrated senior staffer, who needed Clinton's signature on a document and couldn't seem to get it, recalls turning to Steiner, who went back channel through the staff secretary's office and got the president's sign-off the next day.

He came to Washington from the New York Public Library -- not usually seen as a training ground for political hotshots -- where he was the top aide to Timothy Healy, the late library president and longtime Georgetown University president. His predecessor in the job was George Stephanopoulos.

Stephanopoulos, who felt guilty about leaving Healy for the campaign, recruited the most competent successor he could find. He had known Steiner from the Dukakis campaign, where Steiner, just out of college, had impressed the Dukakis aides -- many of whom are now in the White House -- with his work on debate preparation.

In the fall of 1992, Steiner got recruited again by another Dukakis veteran, White House economic adviser Gene Sperling, who brought him down to work on the transition. He shared a transition office with Altman and later went to work for him.

Even though Steiner doesn't have an independent power base, senior Treasury officials empower him, one administration official observes. "He connects with the right people. He makes it happen."


Environmental Protection Agency

One of EPA Administrator Carol Browner's most important tasks is to wade through a seemingly endless mass of arcane issues that could occupy much of her time and zero in on what's really important. That's where Washington environmental lawyer Michael P. Vandenbergh comes in.

A former biotechnology consultant for the National Wildlife Federation, Vandenbergh, 34, was hired as a special assistant, promoted to associate deputy administrator and then, in September, became chief of staff. In just a year, he has risen to be one of Browner's most trusted aides.

Although he worked on the Clinton campaign in North Carolina, where he went to college, and was later associate counsel to the transition, Vandenbergh does not have the long-standing ties to Clinton or to Congress that many other chiefs of staff have. Nor did he know Browner, who interviewed him for only about 20 minutes before hiring him.

But at the technologically driven EPA, Vandenbergh's knowledge of the highly complex laws and regulations the agency deals with -- and his ability to make them understandable -- has propelled his ascent.

Vandenbergh is the point man for an agency that is still trying to find its place. Prior administrations often treated environmental policy as an afterthought, one EPA official says. "The domestic policy train would leave, go halfway down the track, and then someone would ask: 'What about the environment?' "

In the environmentally conscious Clinton administration, the official says, "the EPA is on board when the train leaves the station." But the White House has created its own Office of Environmental Policy, diluting EPA's clout. Vandenbergh, as coordinator with the White House, is the one who tries to make sure the EPA stays on board as the big calls are being made.

"Senior staff relate well to him," says one ranking EPA admirer, because "people are very cognizant of the fact that he's the person who would have all the pieces of the puzzle. In a department long criticized for doing things in a very disparate, unconnected way," that is important. "He can put together the political, the policy and the practical."



It would have meant a great deal to Transportation Secretary Federico Pena to have President Clinton join him in Denver last November to dedicate the new airport there. After all, the airport had been Pena's biggest project as the city's mayor and was cited by Clinton as an example of what this new secretary could accomplish.

But Clinton couldn't go. The dedication was the same day as a summit meeting with Asian leaders in Seattle. Efforts to find a suitable substitute, perhaps the vice president or First Lady, went nowhere.

Finally, Richard Mintz, Pena's 32-year-old public affairs director, called Clinton scheduler Ricki Seidman, whom Mintz knew from his days as a spokesman for the National Abortion Rights Action League. Then he called a top White House aide he knew from having spent a year working on the campaign. It was an especially hectic time for Clinton, the day after the critical NAFTA vote and the day before the Asian summit. But the president stepped out of the Oval Office, sat down before the videotape camera and read a speech praising Pena and saluting the new airport.

For a Washington newcomer like Pena, Mintz's ability to cut across channels and get things done quickly is what makes him invaluable. Mintz has other White House ties to draw upon: He could just as easily have called George Stephanopoulos, a squash buddy when both of them worked for congressmen seven years ago, or communications aide Rahm Emmanuel, with whom Mintz had lunch and dinner countless times during a long year in Little Rock.

His role at Transportation is magnified, at least for now, because of his campaign experience and the relative Washington inexperience of Pena's triumvirate of key Denver staffers -- Chief of Staff Ann Bormolini, Deputy Chief Katherine Archuleta and General Counsel Steve Kaplan.



The Commerce Department often has been dismissed as a third-string player, a political dumping ground and disconnected hodgepodge of unrelated agencies, from head-counters at the Census Bureau to stargazers at the National Weather Service. But now the Clinton administration is trying to "grow the economy" through technology, exports, public-private ventures and such, and Commerce officials see a chance to join the starting team.

That's where Jonathan B. Sallet, a 41-year-old Washington lawyer and former Supreme Court clerk who runs the department's long-moribund Office of Policy and Strategic Planning, comes in.

An obscure policy directorship might seem an unusual spot for a key player. But if the department is going to carve out a bigger role in policy making, Sallet is in the pivotal job. So when Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown takes one aide to meetings with Clinton and the National Economic Council, he takes Sallet.

Sallet's political lineage traces to Al Gore, not to the Clinton crowd. He was deputy general counsel on Gore's 1988 campaign, a policy adviser to Gore during the last campaign and an economic adviser during the transition. (He also worked for Brown during the 1992 Democratic convention.) In the policy planning job, the Gore tie may be just as important as a Clinton one, since Gore is seen as the point man on environmental and technology matters.

"Jonathan is a policy wonk with political credentials," explains one official who works with him. He knows the politics but "wonks with the {Gene} Sperlings and the {Robert} Kyles {key White House economic aides}, and that is very big in this administration."



Washington lawyer Thomas C. Collier Jr. came to the Interior Department with no particular knowledge of substantive issues, no particular political ties and no campaign connections. But the 42-year-old Collier virtually rules the sprawling department, employing the same aggressive, in-your-face style that he once did as a litigator.

That is the quality admired by Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who watched Collier in action when they were law partners in the firm of Steptoe & Johnson.

Babbitt, a former governor of Arizona, set up Interior like a governor's office: He has no deputy secretary, and his "cabinet" -- the assistant secretaries -- works through Chief of Staff Collier. Because he himself is laid-back and open by nature, Babbitt wanted a tough manager.

Collier controls the flow of paper and people to Babbitt -- so tightly, some environmental groups complain, that if they want to get the secretary's ear they have to go through outside channels such as the League of Conservation Voters, which Babbitt headed, or to others in Babbitt's large network of friends.

But order and discipline are critical at Interior, a place that could well have more land mines per square foot than any other agency -- remember the snail darter and the spotted owl? This year the department has stepped on quite a few of those mines, badly losing a string of Senate votes, for example, on efforts to increase grazing fees on federal lands.

Just harnessing the department's disparate components, from the Bureau of Land Management to the Fish and Wildlife and Parks operation, is a difficult enough task. In the past, different sections of the agency gave Hill committees differing positions on the same issues. That, says a fan of Collier's inside the department, doesn't happen anymore.

Collier has set up two meetings a week, each two hours long, for the 15 most senior officials to hammer out a consistent policy on issues. "Tom won't let them get away with running off on their own," says a colleague. "He's a damn good gatekeeper," an environmental activist who has dealt with him says grudgingly.

"I'm not sure I'd want to work for me," Collier says.



Richard Rosenzweig knew he would be working in the Clinton administration the moment Clinton named Hazel O'Leary as energy secretary. He had no particular ties to the Clinton camp, but his ties to O'Leary were unbeatable.

Her late husband, Jack O'Leary, a former administrator of the Federal Energy Administration, was the 32-year-old Rosenzweig's mentor. Rosenzweig's lobbying and public relations firm worked closely with the Keystone Center, an environmental and energy think tank in Colorado, where Jack O'Leary chaired a project on energy futures.

Rosenzweig's Washington PR firm also handled strategies for acid rain, nuclear energy and other hot issues for Hazel O'Leary when she was executive vice president of Northern States Power Co. in Minneapolis, the job she held when Clinton picked her.

Top jobs at Energy were filled by people with credentials that Rosenzweig lacked: experience in the Clinton and Gore campaigns and fund-raising connections. But O'Leary asked Rosenzweig to be her chief of staff. He initially declined, fearing the job involved too much paper-shuffling and too many staffing issues, and preferring a policy-making job instead.

He was persuaded otherwise, and has proceeded to get heavily involved in DOE policy making, such as handling negotiations with Treasury, the Office of Management and Budget and the White House as the department pushed -- unsuccessfully -- for a so-called Btu tax on energy consumption.

O'Leary prefers to give her deputies broad discretion over their issues, which makes Rosenzweig's coordinating role a critical one. If any senior aide wants to know what O'Leary's position is on any element of any issue -- from nuclear waste to global warming to NAFTA -- the quickest way to find out is to ask Rosenzweig.

That's why, as a guy who is always able to reflect the thinking of his boss, his nickname at Energy is "The Mirror."

Al Kamen writes the "In the Loop" column on The Post's Federal Page.