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  •   An Unlikely Policy Partnership Forged in Mutual Respect

    President Clinton applauds Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin during a Rose Garden ceremony Wednesday. (Reuters)
    By Charles Babington
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, May 13, 1999; Page A18

    The reserved, millionaire investor from Wall Street didn't know what to make of the garrulous, small-town southern governor who had just been elected president when they held their first substantial discussion in Little Rock.

    Robert E. Rubin told friends he'd had a "very confusing" conversation with Bill Clinton in November 1992, as the president-elect interviewed potential Cabinet members. Unclear about Clinton's plans for the deficit, taxes and monetary policy, Rubin told him Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen would be a better choice for treasury secretary. Clinton agreed.

    But he soon persuaded Rubin to take another post that would prove crucial for a new president who had promised to "focus like a laser" on the economy. He named Rubin to chair the National Economic Council. Clinton had created the panel to place economic policy on a par with foreign matters, which were coordinated in the White House by the National Security Council.

    Over time, Rubin and Clinton formed a critical policy partnership a relationship that ranks in significance only after those Clinton has with Vice President Gore and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Eventually succeeding Bentsen at Treasury, Rubin held the administration on course as the president grew increasingly resolved to shrink the deficit and reduce inflation.

    Rubin and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan had told Clinton that such a strategy would lower interest rates and promote economic growth. That's just what happened, giving Clinton his signature domestic accomplishment. And yesterday, the president heaped praise on his departing aide.

    "I will miss his cool head and steady hand, his sharp mind and his warm heart," Clinton said as applause rose from Greenspan, Cabinet members, family and friends gathered on the White House lawn.

    On the surface, Rubin and Clinton hardly seemed simpatico. Although both graduated from Yale Law School, Rubin became a smooth, soft-spoken star at Goldman, Sachs & Co., accumulating a personal fortune. Clinton, the voluble pol, settled for $35,000 a year as Arkansas governor, relying on his lawyer wife to earn the family's main income.

    But once Rubin entered the Clinton White House, aides say, he quickly established himself as a smart, unpretentious counselor who kept his cool regardless of political crises thundering around him.

    "No matter how tough things may have looked, he was unflappable," White House senior adviser Doug Sosnik said yesterday. "He was a calming presence."

    Last August, when the Dow dropped 512 points in one day, Rubin coped with the fallout and still managed to catch the shuttle to New York in time for dinner with his wife, who has remained there while Rubin lived in a Washington hotel. Rubin never steeped himself in the Washington culture, yet he became a key administration player, sources say, because he gently and confidently dispensed advice without trying to impress others or build a political reputation here.

    "The president has a great deal of respect for him," said Rahm Emanuel, a former top Clinton adviser. "They both like to learn, and were impressed with what the other knew."

    Other White House aides held Rubin in such regard that they steered clear of his favorite chair in the Roosevelt Room, where senior staff aides convene each morning. Even though there are no assigned seats, Sosnik said, even on the mornings when Rubin arrived late, "no one sat in his chair."


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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