Chief of Staff Panetta Is Getting the Job Done

DEAR Leon Panetta:

You've only been the president's right-hand man for a few weeks, but your presence is already being felt.

You've always had warm press relations. So when President Clinton feeds cake to the press and schmoozes with reporters in his private quarters - we see the Panetta touch. You've doubtless told him this is a better approach than kicking the press in the teeth, as he did in a TV outburst just before you moved in to become his chief of staff.

As you could surmise after your recent lunch with the Monitor's press group, the president has a much bigger problem than getting along with the media. We may feel friendlier toward Mr. Clinton - but this does little to dispel the feeling so many of us have that this isn't a president with a firm hand on the tiller, particularly in foreign affairs.

You listened to how hard we pressed you on Cuba: Wasn't Castro once again calling the tune? Didn't Castro have Clinton off balance? We heard your answers: ``We support peaceful transitions to democracy. If Castro is willing to work in that direction, we will work with him.''

But you had to know you were not satisfying questioners who were asking something else: ``Why can't we find consistency and firmness in Clinton's foreign policy - in Cuba but also in Haiti, Bosnia, Somalia, and elsewhere?''

We've never known a chief of staff like you. You are always happy-go-lucky in your demeanor. Lots of joshing, never taking yourself too seriously. Not that you aren't serious about the issues. But you have a way of topping a sober discussion with a quip or light comment.

For example, you told about some top officials who irritated Roman Catholics by insisting that abortion be part of the global talks on curbing population. You said they had been ``talked to'' for going against presidential policy.

``Had they been taken to the woodshed?'' someone asked.

``Modified woodshed,'' you replied.

You told us that Clinton has stuck to his guns on many issues. You made a persuasive case on the crime bill. After losing that surprise vote in the House, Clinton could easily have listened to the warnings that he would make a big mistake in trying to rescue his crime legislation. But he did persist. We know that your help in shaping a compromise was absolutely needed.

Clinton has a chief of staff who can draw on friendships made when he was a member of Congress. Clinton has in you an adviser who can tell him how to reshape legislation such as the crime bill, and know how to win it.

So, Leon, you have indeed made a quick impact in your new job. Sources say you have already taken steps to bring about more order and are in the midst of assessments from which further changes will come.

Therefore, in the areas of operation and advice where a chief of staff has authority to act it appears you are off to a good start.

You've also been keeping a free-wheeling president close to schedule. He's not been providing those spur-of-the-moment curbstone opinions that were undercutting his ability to shape clear policy.

But Leon, you know you can do little to shape the basic fiber of this presidency. It's up to Mr. Clinton himself to change the negative image of his presidency - one that Garry Trudeau represents as a waffle in his comic strip, ``Doonesbury.'' Can Clinton become a decisive leader in global affairs? You will have to watch and see - along with the rest of us.

This letter follows the one I sent you after the previous meeting you had with our Monitor group. Clinton had just tapped you for this tough assignment and I raised questions about whether the task might be too much.

Since that time I've talked to a number of reporters who have ringside seats on your activity and who are giving you high grades. I wanted to write again and tell you so.

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