WASHINGTON — THE Clinton White House is getting rapped hard lately over its alleged youth and inexperience.
Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer complained last week about the lack of maturity, writing that the White House "gives the impression of a college dorm: energetic, youthful, lightweight."
President Clinton himself joked at the annual Gridiron banquet this spring: "I've got a Cabinet that looks like America, and a staff that looks like a Head Start program."
But how young is the Clinton crew, really?
At the levels that count - that is, where policy and strategy decisions are made and advice presented - the Clinton administration is as old or older than the early Bush administration.
Mr. Clinton's inner Cabinet - the defense, state, and Treasury secretaries, and the attorney general, who carry the weightiest responsibilities - averages 61.5 years compared with a mere 55 years for their Bush-appointed counterparts in 1989.
Clinton's senior staff, the 18 top aides that run the White House, averages out at 44 years of age, compared with 42.5 for the 14 aides at a similar level in the Bush White House.
Comparing the entire Cabinets of Bush and Clinton, Clinton's is indeed younger, by a little over two years.
Mr. Clinton answered a question about the youth of his staff at a Rose Garden press conference Friday. "Like Lloyd Bentsen and Warren Christopher?" he riposted, naming two prominent Cabinet members who are old enough to be eligible for Social Security. Then he cited his chief of staff, national security adviser, domestic policy adviser, and national economic adviser as all "I think older than our counterparts were when President Kennedy was president."
Yet, clearly, the Clinton team is conveying an aura of youth.
One possible explanation lies in the representatives of the administration that the public and the press see the most: communications director George Stephanopoulos and press secretary Dee Dee Myers. Both took up their present mantles at the age of 31.
Young, yes, but not remarkably so.
Bill Moyers was 29 when he became a special assistant to President Lyndon Johnson and 31 when he became press secretary, with the assistant to the president rank that Mr. Stephanopoulos carries. Ron Ziegler was even more of a Wunderkind when he became press secretary in the Nixon White House at age 30. Carter spokesman Jody Powell assumed his post at 35, Kennedy's Pierre Salinger at 36.
Then there's the president himself. At 46, Clinton is one of the youngest presidents in history, most of whom have been in their 50s. But he is not setting any records. His model in many things, John Kennedy, assumed office at 44. Teddy Roosevelt, however, was an even younger 42.
Stories are common these days of senior-level business executives setting up White House meetings and finding themselves talking to someone who looks almost insultingly junior, notes David Demarest, communications director in the Bush White House (at 37) and now a business consultant. "There's nothing wrong with being young in the White House," he says. "It's a function of seasoning."
The Clinton White House has no veterans of previous White Houses at senior levels. One of the senior aides most experienced in political Washington, Stephanopoulos, is also the youngest.
Part of it is culture. In the Bush White House, men wore suits. It was a Brooks Brothers White House. Under Clinton, khaki pants and sport coats are common.
Young or not, things have loosened up.