Transition Tests Clinton's Ability To Balance Competing Interests

BETWEEN now and the time Bill Clinton is sworn in as president on Jan. 20, he will set much of the character of his presidency.

He will pit his aims and ideals for his government against the voracious demands of narrower political interests as he chooses most of his top staff and those who will hold Cabinet positions.

"We'll see what he's made of," says Calvin Mackenzie, a political scientist at Colby College in Maine. "We have a generation of people in this country who feel they were born to govern and they've been frustrated for 12 years." These Democrats' ambitions create "political maelstroms" around each post Mr. Clinton must fill, he says.

The Clinton transition team is making a point of its methodical and objective approach. The director of the team, Warren Christopher, is the reliable and unassuming Los Angeles lawyer who ran Clinton's selection process for a running mate, which was an electoral success. The search was marked by careful vetting to avoid the pitfalls that befell George Bush when he picked Dan Quayle as his running mate without extensive staff discussion.

Clinton's choice of transition chairman, Washington lawyer and former Urban League leader Vernon Jordan, reflects Clinton's often-stated commitment that his administration "look like the country" in its diversity. Mr. Jordan is black and Mr. Christopher is white.

Like the campaign, the transition is based in Little Rock, Ark., at a comfortable distance from the teeming talent pools and pressure groups of Washington. During the campaign, officials felt their isolation from visiting politicians and consultants helped to preserve their independence of judgment from the distractions of conventional wisdom.

The transition is opening a Washington office, but the geographical inconvenience of its Little Rock headquarters may be even more helpful than during the campaign to keep patronage seekers at arms length.

The most striking aspect of Clinton's choices Friday to run his transition is that Mickey Kantor was not at the top. Mr. Kantor, another Los Angeles lawyer, was chairman of the Clinton campaign and head of the quiet committee Clinton named several weeks before the election to begin transition planning.

REPORTEDLY, some Clinton campaign staff members saw Kantor, with a client list as gilded as his political network, as too much a symbol of the lobbyist in alligator shoes that Ross Perot warned of. Kantor was seldom mentioned by staffers during the campaign as a key decisionmaker. But he was regarded as a deft and mature spokesman to the outside world.

Clinton himself, meanwhile, said that he was poring through volumes of reading material on what he needs to do. This is consistent with the Clinton style. He has both the capacity and the inclination to master large amounts of information before he makes a move.

Shortly after the election, Clinton promised to "focus like a laser beam on this economy." His aides said last week that the president-elect's first moves would include executive orders allowing abortion counseling in federally-funded clinics and allowing homosexuals to serve in the military.

Clinton's appointments to key economic posts - and how he structures those posts in his White House - will be the next solid clue to his course. His network of economic advisers covered the political spectrum from the center to the left.

Overall, the most important transition work will be to name about 30 of the top White House and Cabinet positions. "Clinton will establish pretty much the mark of his administration by these appointments," says Walt Williams, professor of public affairs at the University of Washington and an expert on transitions. "The really critical aspect of this transition period is that handful of people. These are the people who will run the government."

The single most critical post, says Professor Williams, is chief of staff, followed by budget director, national security adviser, secretary of state, and secretary of the treasury. Clinton also has discussed creating a higher-powered economic official on the White House staff, perhaps an economic security adviser.

Tight ethics rules will be a priority with the Clinton team. Christopher said in his initial transition press conference: "I think you'll see the most stringent ethics rules ever promulgated."

The Bush White House already has tightened ethics rules beyond any previous administration in history. The rules on potential conflicts of interest, for example, made filling some posts very difficult. "I think they're crazy," says Mackenzie of the Clinton team. "What you buy in ethics is not worth what you lose in good people."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.