WASHINGTON — IF history is any guide, one of President-elect Clinton's least-known appointments so far may be the most important to the success of his presidency.
The power of the White House chief of staff is evidenced by how many recent ones have become targets of popular wrath: John Sununu, Donald Regan, Hamilton Jordan, and H.R. Haldeman.
Mr. Clinton's choice - Thomas "Mack" McLarty, chairman of Arkla Inc., an Arkansas-based gas company - is an experienced manager and old friend of the president-elect without a strong political base. Unlike the other aides Clinton has appointed, Mr. McLarty does not appear to hold strong policy views.
The ideal most experts on White House management hold is that the chief of staff should be a neutral figure who will present varied views to the president. McLarty appears well-suited to that role. Both he and Clinton have used the phrase "honest broker" to describe his role, and McLarty said he is studying a book on chiefs of staff that advocates that approach.
Clinton's team may function like President Truman's aides, James Webb and Clark Clifford. "They really were his agents, doing what he directed them to do, day by day," says Sam Kernell, a University of California at San Diego political scientist.
This is far different from what Dr. Kernell calls the corporate model, a powerful chief who restricts access to the president and sends commands downs from the top. Donald Regan and John Sununu were both powerful chiefs of staff in this mold, says Walt Williams, a University of Washington political scientist who studies White House management. "But they were extremely weak managerial chiefs of staff. They did not connect the president well to sources of information."
James Pfiffner, a George Mason University presidential scholar, says: "I suspect [McLarty] will speak quietly but in a sense carry a big stick, and that is the confidence of the president."
One possible weakness in choosing a friend, notes Michael Medved, a film critic and authority on chiefs of staff, is that it is hard to discipline or fire a loyal friend. "Best friends don't make good chiefs of staff," he says.