Top Clinton Aide's Goal: Run a Tighter Ship in '94
Chief of staff wants more order, discipline, without losing openness
WASHINGTON — WHITE House Chief of Staff Thomas (Mack) McLarty intends to run a tighter, more disciplined White House in the Clinton administration's second year.
From the beginning, senior staff members of the Clinton White House have been pleased with the way their organization mobilizes on big initiatives - such as the budget, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and health care. This White House has performed best on issues most like the single-minded, all-or-nothing ethos of an election campaign.
But the atmosphere of competitive, creative chaos has meant that matters that were farther down on the White House agenda have not always been well-staffed and followed through. President Clinton and his aides were often frustrated in communicating clear messages to the public and were sometimes caught unprepared by problems ranging from gays-in-the-military policy to escalation of fighting in Somalia.
``There were so many initiatives that it was very difficult to coordinate staffing, especially for the message'' to the public on an issue, says a source involved with the White House, who insists on anonymity.
The Clinton staff already went through a major shift late last spring - when former Reagan official David Gergen joined the team -
that imposed a more orderly march on an energetic but loose operation. Mr. McLarty plans further changes in coming weeks, beginning with bringing in a new deputy, Phil Lader, to act as what McLarty calls a chief operating officer.
McLarty hopes for more efficient decisions that consume less of the president's time, better anticipation of problems, and less-cluttered public communication from the president.
The management style and tone of the Clinton White House is vastly different from that of President Bush's team, especially from when John Sununu was chief of staff. Where Mr. Sununu's forceful and snappish personality dominated staff operations, intimidated others at staff meetings, and kept close control of access to the president, McLarty is a Southern-style manager with a soft touch who makes sure no one is overly harsh or domineering in meetings.
Two of the most influential figures with the best access to the president himself, senior counselor Gergen and National Economic Council director Robert Rubin, also have a gentle style in meetings.
McLarty says that, after consulting the president, he has set up a very inclusive White House that is not autocratic or hierarchical and where staff access to Clinton himself is not closely held - no ``narrow funnel'' to the president, in McLarty's term.
Even veteran leaders in the White House acknowledge an unusual ``social fabric'' there now where people work well together, McLarty says. And, in fact, few of the typical internal battles have emerged from this White House.
But the mode of operation that has worked best in this White House has been the war-room style campaign teams set up to carry out a specific mission, working all hours in a special room, ordering Chinese takeout, and mobilizing all the resources of the administration.
McLarty compares them to the quality circles that automakers use in product development. He indicates that a new war-room team will be set up in the new year to handle the drive to pass health-care legislation.
McLarty himself is likely to spend even more time networking outside the White House with business and labor groups and other constituencies. This is a role often handled by vice presidents, he says, but Vice President Al Gore Jr. ``wears a different mantle.''
``Going into the second year,'' McLarty says, ``we can achieve a better degree of order, discipline, accountability, and more prompt decisionmaking.'' Some of the inefficiencies of the first year were inevitable, he says, with the enormous amounts of time needed to prepare the first budget and develop policies. ``But I believe we have begun to order meetings, particularly [those] that involve the president, much better - better agenda, tighter focus, without limiting his ability to ask questions and be involved consistent with his style.''
IN the early months of this administration, the senior staff met Friday afternoons to plan the upcoming week. But the meetings were too unwieldy and too much changed during the week.
Last spring, the meetings became daily and a smaller group stayed afterward for a management meeting. This has helped spread staff out to deal with a range of issues and to make sure directives are carried out.
Public communication problems are at the core of what most concerns the White House.
Says McLarty: ``Despite having an extraordinary communicator in the Oval Office and a very effective communicator in the vice presidency ... we have not been able to achieve quite the clear, powerful, coherent message: This is what this presidency stands for and is trying to do to effect people's lives in a meaningful way.''
Part of the problem, as the chief of staff sees it, is the public's high hope for the Clinton administration colliding with a deep skepticism of government. ``It's kind of like a warm front and a cold front coming together. You get turbulence when that occurs,'' McLarty says.