Why Clintonites stay, in spite of everything
Despite Rubin resignation, president has a more stable senior staff
WASHINGTON — What's remarkable about the pending departure of Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin is not that one of the most successful Cabinet members of the Clinton team is leaving - but that it took him so long to pack up his pin-striped suits.
Years of unrelenting White House scandal and world economic turmoil testify to Mr. Rubin's dedication, as well as the president's powers of persuasion.
But, surprising by modern presidential standards, this two-term embattled chief executive still has six other "Rubins" in the Cabinet - key people who, for a variety of reasons, have stuck with the administration since the beginning. And in the pressured world of the White House itself, President Clinton retains a core of policy advisers who have been present since the start as well.
"I'm a Clinton lifer," as domestic adviser Bruce Reed once said.
Not Whitewater, not Monica Lewinsky, not Kosovo, and not the president's kinetic pace have so far shaken these loyalists, though more departures are sure to follow in the months ahead.
The longevity, especially in the Cabinet, shows "remarkable durability," says Thomas Mann at the Brookings Institution here.
Compared with America's last two-term president, Ronald Reagan, Clinton has faced less turnover, both inside the White House and in Cabinet posts. The result, for better or worse, has been more consistency in areas of domestic and foreign policy and a fine-tuned political machine that operates with far more precision than in its first year.
This is not to say the Clinton White House has not seen its share of resignations. In fact, of all the senior aides closest to the president, only one is still standing: adviser, legal counsel, and longtime friend Bruce Lindsey.
The rest - chiefs of staff, press secretaries, and special advisers without portfolio - have changed hands multiple times, coming closer to the historic pattern of 18 months to two years of service. It's mostly the die-hard policy experts, people like Mr. Reed, or economic adviser Gene Sperling, or even National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, who are left.
Much of the turnover in any administration is due to the rigors of the job. In his book "All Too Human," former Clinton aide George Stephanopolous tells of sacrificing his private life, including his girlfriend, for his public life. He describes seeking weekly therapy and, by the time he left, being as worn out as shoe leather.
"The higher up you go, the more total the exhaustion," says Martha Joynt Kumar, a political scientist who, from a perch in the White House basement, is researching a book.
Ms. Kumar says one aide described his typical work day as up at 3:45 a.m., at his desk by 6:30 a.m. - having already read the papers, of course - and departing at perhaps 8:30 p.m.
Clinton is not the only president to make demands on his staff. Lyndon Johnson was famous for working two days in one, napping to break up his day.
Loyalty is just one reason "lifers" have stood by Clinton, a president who lied to his staff about a scandal that eventually imperiled his presidency. Donna Shalala, the longest serving secretary of Health and Human Services ever, "really likes her job, and she's good at it," says Mr. Mann at Brookings.
For some, it's the best job they could hope for. For others, it's the persuasiveness of the president: Clinton himself admitted he pressured Rubin to stay on longer than he wanted to. At the height of the Lewinsky scandal, some long-timers endured because they didn't want to look as if they were bailing out on Clinton. Says former senior aide Rahm Emanuel: "I did not want to see other people take the president down."
For the White House policy team, working for a "wonk" like Clinton, who actually reads their memos, has its own rewards. They relish the chance to make a difference - especially given that, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, a Democrat hasn't controlled the Oval Office since 1968.
"Nearly seven years of working with President Clinton is exhausting. But it's still a rare opportunity to have an impact, to be part of history, to make a difference," says Michael Waldman, the president's chief speechwriter.
Mr. Waldman says that he, Reed, and Sperling - who have all worked their way to senior positions - have stayed up late penning so many State of the Union addresses that they can now communicate by "nonverbal cues." "It's like a basketball team where you don't need to see the other player. You can throw the ball and know that they'll be there," says Waldman.
Longevity has its advantages. He and others cite institutional memory, learning from mistakes, knowing which campaign promises have been achieved, and better understanding of how a president thinks.
But it can also cause problems. Marlin Fitzwater, who regrets he hung on for 10 years in the Reagan and Bush years, says it leads to burnout. Worse, it deprives a president of fresh ideas. A president needs "new energy, new perspectives," he says.
Certainly many in Washington argue that Clinton's crisis-oriented foreign-policy team should be replaced, especially over its handling of Kosovo. In The Washington Post, columnist Michael Kelly wrote that a "ham and cheese sandwich" would serve the president better than his long-standing foreign-policy team.
Still, in any White House, the buck stops with the president. His team, no matter how loyal, merely reflects the man.