The smell of wet paint and spackling compound is all around Alonzo McDonald as he sits in his office, just a few steps from the Oval Office, and directs the systematized destruction of the way things were.
Walls are being build where walls never were, doorways are being carved where there were just walls and 75 presidential aides are being shifted around the warrens of the White House staff.
It is a grand shuffle in the name of efficiency, schemed by the man who is the new staff director of the White House, approved by his boss, Hamilton Jordan, who is the official chief of staff, and ordered by the president.
"The president was watching a trend line," McDonald says referring perhaps to one drawn by Gallup or Harris. "And he thought it had reached the trigger point."
McDonald sits in an office where walls are bare, stripped of pictures and bookshelves that were in place when Tim Kraft and his secretaries had the space (Kraft has been dispatched to the Carter campaign headquarters). That odor of paint and thinner and plaster is familiar to the White House inner sanctum. It is an air that exists just after an inauguration, when the president's team is getting ready to do things its own way, and then again after the first year of a presidency, when there routinely are some reassessments and rejiggerings.
To this tradition has come the Carter presidency, an assemblage of well-intentioned people who have given the White House an aura of one-of-these-days-we've-got-to-get-organized.
There was some tinkering with the White House staff after the first few months, and again after the first year, and then after the famous initial Camp David review of April 1978. No, nine months into the third year of the Carter presidency, a major restructuring and reshuffling is under way.
All of this is not to say that the restructuring is not worthwhile, just that it is late. As it works out, the American presidency is actually a three-year reign.When a president is seeking reelection, the fourth year is dominated by the need to politick. It is no longer a time for business as usual. When a president is not seeking reelection, the fourth year is a time of reduced presidential influence; few successfully wage presidential business as usual from the sanctuary of a lame duck.
The reshuffle, as mapped by Alonzo ("please call me Al") McDonald has bruised some egos in the Carter White House. Some have been shifted out of the place of maximum prestige -- the West Wing, that place where the president works.
The offices of ethnic liaison -- black affairs adviser Louis Martin, Jewish affairs adviser Edward Sanders and new Hispanic affairs adviser Esteban Torres -- will now operate in the lower rent district that is the White House East Wing.
Hugh Carter Jr., the president's relative who is in charge of prequisites and deridingly is called "Cousin Cheap" by most Carter aides, gets to stay in the West Wing, but in a cramped basement cubbyhole instead of his second-floor suite.
Richard Harden, who is in charge of administration, has been banished to the venerable gray Executive Office Building.
"Everyone who's been moved has objected," McDonald says, raising both palms to the ceiling. "Anybody who's moving is unhappy. This space thing is living agony."
The second floor of the West Wing will now be populated by people of a truly high calling in the Carter White House. New staff additions who will be there include Hedley Donovan, new presidential assistant and former editor-in-chief of Time Inc., new counsel Lloyd Cutler and Sarah Weddington, newly anointed as political adviser after serving in the more limited role of liaison for women's affairs.
"The West Wing is one of the more difficult of modern management arenas," says McDonald, who was the top official of McKinsey and Co., Inc., management consultants and was recommended for his current job by Carter insider Robert Strauss, whom he served as a deputy special trade representative.
McDonald sits inside the Carter inner circle now like an interloper from the outside corporate world. He surrounds himself with serious, conscientious aides, bespectacled, buttoned-down young men with briefcases who seem left over from a cadre that served in a White House of a half-dozen years ago. And McDonald speaks a language that has not been heard around the West Wing for years -- a corporate jargon that is neo-Jeb Magruder, with a business-like sprinkling of H. R. Haldeman.
Consider a McDonald sampler:
"Our goals are accomplished; our team is ready to go."
"There's a hope that some of the cross-roughing will be done earlier . . . that decisions will be broadly based . . . that we can increase inputs."
"When you trigger something at the top, there's always a ripple effect."
"We have to reinforce the organization . . . I'm not always as concerned with tactics as to whether it gets the job done successfully."
"We need a process of involvement, an exchange of information, a synthesization . . . . We've got to look at how problems interlink, the monitoring and the execution."
"When there's an uncontrollable problem, that's the point in time when we must have analysis before we have ad hoc action. I'm inclined to think that's the point in time when a little more cohesive action would be needed."
One of that loose bunch of Georgians who have been with Jimmy Carter for years, since Hamilton Jordan wore blue jeans and windbreakers into the White House, concedes that McDonald and his young and serious aides are not exactly part of the original Carter team. "Maybe they're not like the folks around here," he concedes, "but that's what everyone was saying we needed. So now we've got some."
One of McDonald's biggest boosters outside the government says McDonald has another quality that could become an attribute in the Carter White House. "McDonald can be a mean SOB," he says, "I mean he likes to fire people."
This could be an attribute because McDonald is going to have to be Hamilton Jordan's Haldeman. Jordan is a political strategist who knows Carter well, but he is not an administrator nor is he consistent enough to be an organization disciplinarian. "We look on each other as a two-man team," McDonald says of his boss, "with Hamilton clearly in the lead, calling the signals."
McDonald spends his days now in an office that has been opened by a doorway to connect with Jordan's, and there he is finishing the blueprints for how -- beginning in the ninth month of the third year -- the Carter White House will operate. "Better late than never," McDonald says.
But there are others on the White House staff who fear McDonald may be doing little more than rearranging his deck chairs on the Titanic, and there are others who think that while the president's election-year fortunes are not that hopeless, it still may be too late for the reshuffling to make a substantive difference in the conduct of the Carter presidency.
"It's the last of the ninth for us and we're behind 9-0," says one Carter associate outside the White House. "It's not too late, but it sure is late enough."
EPILOGUE: It is the last days of August, and while Alonzo McDonald is moving people and walls in the White House, several of Washington's most influential men meet by chance on a street corner during lunchtime strolls just a few blocks away. They are lobbyists from big oil, fast foods, mass communications and health, and they stop on the corner of Connecticut and L to swap a few political cheers.
"What are you up to, now that Congress has gone home?" one lobbyist asks another.
"Well, I've been busy as hell," says his friend and colleague, a man whose inclinations are far from liberal but who is always eager to move toward an oncoming political power. "I've been scratching around trying to find if there is still some way for me to get under the wire and contribute money to that Kennedy Library at Harvard. I just hope they'll accept my money."
And the lobbyists, all of them, guffawed.