The Clinton administration begins July with two sharply contrasting departures from its senior ranks. Taken together, the exits of Robert Rubin and of J. Brian Atwood define the notions of sweet success and bitter failure in Clintonian Washington.
Rubin resigned last week as one of the most successful and celebrated Treasury secretaries in modern history. He was hailed by the capital's political class, lionized by its media and cheered by New York's record-setting stock markets.
That is as neat a trifecta as any political horse-player could ever want. What's more, Rubin leaves town with his reputation for integrity and capability enhanced, an accomplishment that will be matched by few others on the scandal- and controversy-battered Clinton team.
Atwood's departure this week as administrator of the Agency for International Development (AID) was nearly as invisible and contentious as Rubin's was well advertised and glorious.
Having fought a losing rear-guard action to protect the status and resources of the agency that oversees U.S. foreign assistance, Atwood left in a sulfurous mood. He pointed fingers at others for their lack of support. He specifically took aim at Rubin's Treasury Department for its giving short shrift to development proposals.
Comparing the two departures is to some extent mixing apples and oranges. Rubin occupied a vastly more powerful post, with different constituencies and duties, and operated in the best of financial times. He understood that time so well that he arranged to leave as the market wave he helped create hit a new crest.
Atwood signed on to a sinking ship that could never begin to compete for Bill Clinton's time and support. He had to know it would end in tears. Atwood's position grew weaker as Clinton traded away AID's independent status in a still unfulfilled deal with Jesse Helms and other Senate Republican conservatives that would allow Washington to pay its back debts to the United Nations.
But the rise of Rubin's Treasury, and of U.S. financial markets as unrivaled arbiters and sources of power in this administration, and the decline of support for developmental aid for poor countries travel along the same arc in Washington. The different trajectories of the two men and the two worlds they represent trace an important shift in values here.
Rubin's greatest strength was perhaps his understanding of what not to do. He got Clinton and other senior political figures in the administration never to put pressure on or even talk about the Federal Reserve or international currency exchange rates.
This political cover gave Chairman Alan Greenspan and his colleagues at the Fed enough room to be able to let the rapidly changing U.S. economy find its own course and its own level. When monetary crisis struck Asia, Rubin beat back attempts to overhaul the international financial system and watched it weather the crisis' onset.
He also managed to tether the ever-changeable Clinton to the only predictable, consistent set of policies he has followed throughout his presidency.
I once asked Rubin how he had managed to accomplish something no department head had done on foreign policy, energy, defense or other subjects. He disputed my assumption by saying that Clinton had arrived in Washington with his own fully formed picture of the new global economy and the need to reduce deficits. Rubin characteristically disclaimed any credit for establishing a credibility that depended largely on his own preoccupation with consistency.
Atwood got no victory laps as his six years as AID's administrator ended this week. In a June 29 speech to the Overseas Development Council here, he voiced "regret that we not only had to battle the traditional opponents of foreign aid in Congress but also . . . administration colleagues who should have known better."
He faulted Treasury for emphasizing financial concerns over development, and called for AID to be given oversight responsibility for the World Bank while Treasury remained responsible for the International Monetary Fund -- a division of labor many industrial countries follow.
Atwood was the first to acknowledge the undistinguished legacy of development assistance in the Third World, where an odd mixture of the cynical buying of Cold War clients, incompetence and paternalism dominated previous efforts. He sought to give AID a new political relevance, and made progress in that direction.
But frustrated by Helms's chipping away at the agency's authority, Atwood committed the unpardonable Washington sin: In public remarks earlier this year, he lashed out at the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. When the White House nominated Atwood to be ambassador to Brazil, Helms let it be known that Jack the Ripper had a better chance of being confirmed. The nomination was withdrawn.
Rubin moves back to New York and a period of contemplating his next move. Atwood goes to Boston and a new career helping mesh private-sector investments with development needs.
It takes nothing away from Rubin's success to say that a large part of his role here consisted of providing an elegant rationalization for human acquisitiveness. He was the man of the Clinton moment. Atwood was an echo of different, increasingly distant Washington era, before the capital became such a materialist playground and a moral swamp.