Here's to Panetta, a Chance for Order in the White House

DEAR Leon Panetta:

When you arrived at our Monitor lunch, only a few hours after you were named the new White House chief of staff, you may remember that you were greeted with this question: ``How are you to bring discipline to a White House that is badly in need of it without reining in a president who doesn't like to be restrained? Would you be able to say `no' to President Clinton?''

You said you had ``full authority'' to make needed changes in people and policies in the White House. This suggests that the president has delegated, without strings, a lot of power. You also indicated that Hillary Rodham Clinton was enthusiastic about you being given this assignment and the authority to go along with it.

So, for the foreseeable future you have the go-ahead from the president to do whatever you think is necessary to strengthen the White House staff and operation. But whether you succeed or not depends on something else: whether you can curb a free-wheeling president who tends to get involved in just about everything and, because of his defiance of schedules, has been the important factor in turning the White House into mismanaged chaos. If you now have a president who is willing to change his ways and become the model for the order he desires among those who work for him, then you are on the way to becoming a successful chief of staff. Otherwise, good luck!

You told us at lunch that your role model was President Reagan's chief of staff, James Baker III. Mr. Baker was a very strong chief. But he was working for a president whose style was just the opposite of Mr. Clinton's. Mr. Reagan over-delegated, left just about everything to others except the shaping of economic and foreign policy.

But this doesn't mean that Baker didn't have problems. He was part of what was described as a ``troika'' - Baker, deputy chief of staff Mike Deaver, and Attorney General Ed Meese - who had direct access and much influence with Reagan. Baker and Mr. Deaver were close friends. But a rivalry between Baker and Mr. Meese tended to undercut Baker's influence.

Additionally, top Republican conservatives were continually trying to get Reagan to oust Baker. They argued that he was a dangerous ideological liberal of the Nelson Rockefeller stripe. Baker survived all this and emerged as one of the best chiefs of staff in history. But his lot was not always an easy one.

You have one tremendous asset, Mr. Panetta. Everyone likes you. And as you go into this new job, everyone in the White House is rooting for you. That affection and your ability to deal with difficult problems in a fair, good-humorerd way will take you far -

as it already has.

To be effective, a chief of staff must be listened to by his president. Remember: Baker was Reagan's chief adviser as well as top White House manager.

What happens when you tell the president he simply shouldn't demean himself with intemperate remarks about the press, as he did recently? What happens when you tell Clinton he should not utter spur-of-the-moment comments about foreign policy, as he did during the Jimmy Carter-North Korean negotiations? What happens, too, when you tell him to narrow his fire to a few issues and to cut down the length of his speeches?

You can probably induce the president to swallow some things that he doesn't want to hear. You are respected by the president and those around him for your long, successful experience here in Washington, including, of course, your masterful performance as head of the Office of Management and Budget.

More than anything else in your favor, Mr. Panetta, this president needs you. He's not admitting it, but he's got a leaky ship. And he is entreating you to fix it - to bring order out of chaos. In that kind of atmosphere, I think you may pull it off.

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