Ken Khachigian, a veteran California Republican operative who once was an aide to President Richard M. Nixon, was a little startled when he turned on NBC's "Meet the Press" Nov. 7. John Podesta, the president's gray, non-flamboyant chief of staff, was trashing House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert.
"I--we were very displeased with what the speaker did this week," Podesta intoned, commenting on Hastert's appointment of conferees for the HMO reform bill. He added: "I think the fix is in, the special interests still have a hammerlock on this process." Such thoughts were never articulated even in the notorious Nixon White House. "I thought he [Podesta] was way out of line," Khachigian told me. "It's the kind of thing I never heard before--the chief of staff attacking the Congress."
John Podesta, a model faithful aide, is surely no rogue staffer and in fact reflects Bill Clinton's hard White House. As Clinton approaches his last year as president, his staff fits him perfectly: leak-free, disciplined, intensely partisan. It's a system that works. President Clinton's agenda may not be expansive, but on point after point, he is besting the Republican Congress as the current session ends.
Once upon a time, a presidential chief of staff seldom if ever went on television, and the ferocious H. R. Haldeman never would have spoken publicly as Podesta did Nov. 7: "Sometimes, I wonder whether the Republican leadership rolls out of bed in the morning and thinks, 'What can we stop? Can we stop gun control? Can we stop the Patients' Bill of Rights? Can we stop the minimum wage?' " Podesta was not vamping but reflecting the line from the top.
Press Secretary Joe Lockhart regularly talks about the Republican Congress in language that predecessors James Hagerty, Ron Ziegler or Larry Speakes never dared use against the Democratic Congress. Accordingly, Lockhart joined in carefully orchestrated Clinton allegations of Republican "racism."
In his Nov. 3 daily briefing, Lockhart was in full throat on the Senate's rejection of Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White as a federal judge and inaction on other judicial nominations:
"The Senate has the constitutional responsibility. They've treated these people very badly. The treatment of Ronnie White and his nomination, I think, is one of the worst marks against the Senate in recent history and one that they will regret for years to come." Such partisan oratory by presidential staffers has become so commonplace that few remember that it entered the White House with Bill Clinton.
That senior staffers enthusiastically act as partisan mouthpieces reflects the Clinton White House overhaul after the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. The president seemed less concerned by disastrous election returns than an event earlier that year: publication of "The Agenda" by Bob Woodward.
Clinton was infuriated by Woodward's verbatim reporting of what went on during his early months as president. He was astounded that his own aides were telling all, often in a way highly uncomplimentary to him. He vowed then, according to associates, to build a White House staff that never again would embarrass him.
He succeeded in that goal after the 1996 election. Leon Panetta was a member of the House Democratic leadership and a formidable figure in his own right before becoming Clinton's budget director and, later, chief of staff. The president wanted no more Panettas but senior aides promoted from within who would not speak out on their own.
He has them. When the Clinton administration began, Podesta, Lockhart and Budget Director Jack Lew were mid-level professional staffers who hardly were considered candidates for senior positions. Today they run the most buttoned-down White House since Dwight D. Eisenhower's a half-century ago. The unattributed staffer's quote revealing what's really happening has disappeared. These aides are prototypes of what were called assistants with a "passion for anonymity" in Franklin D. Roosevelt's White House.
The dark side of Clinton's accomplishment is what bothered Ken Khachigian. Lew may seem a mild bureaucrat, but veteran Republican lawmakers say they have never encountered so partisan a budget director. Using "anonymous staffers" to attack elected officials further coarsens the nation's politics. Because it works, the practice is not likely to end with the Clinton presidency.
(c) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.