On April 19, 1993, officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation charged into the Waco, Texas compound of the Branch Davidian cult, smashed down walls, and filled the building with tear gas. Rather than flushing out messianic leader David Koresh and his followers, though, the raid set off a chain reaction of explosions in the group’s weapons storehouse. Before the fires were finally extinguished, more than 80 people–including 17 children under the age of 10–had perished. The tragic events at Waco set off a militia movement across the country that would dog the government for years to come.
During the eventual post mortem on the events of that day, researchers examined everything from the tear gas canisters to the FBI leadership to the behavior of the Davidians themselves. But one aspect of the fiasco that has gone largely unnoted is the impact of the fledgling presidency of Bill Clinton. The Waco disaster came just three months into Clinton’s tenure, at a time when the White House was in serious disarray. Poor planning after the election had left key White House jobs unfilled, and Clinton had appointed a slew of advisers–as well as an attorney general–who were foreign to Washington and barely knew how to get their mail delivered, much less manage the sprawling federal bureaucracy.
When he ordered the assault on Waco, Clinton didn’t know, for instance, that the same man who was leading the charge, Richard Rogers, had commanded the FBI forces at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Those forces killed the unarmed wife of white supremacist Randy Weaver. And Clinton consulted with Attorney General Janet Reno–a former Dade County, Florida prosecutor–for only 15 minutes about her decision, seemingly oblivious to the action on the ground. According to The New York Times, Clinton “never explored the details of the plan or other options, entrusting the decision to an attorney general in office for only six weeks, and a director of the FBI who many believe he would like to force out.”
The disaster at Waco should serve as a cautionary tale for the next occupant of the White House, and not only for what it says about handling radical fringe groups. It shows the importance of learning how to get a grip on the federal government that you’re supposed to be running in January. And that’s just one thing the president-elect will have to take care of during the 73 days between Election Day and the inauguration, along with assembling his team, setting his agenda, mapping out a $1.8 billion budget blueprint, and learning what the nuclear codes are.
The Waco debacle also suggests that if the next president is looking for a role model to emulate during his fledgling presidential term, he would be wise to avoid Clinton. Carter, too, wouldn’t be much help. In fact, Al Gore or George W. Bush would be well served to repeat this mantra should they get elected: Be like Reagan. The Gipper may have thought ketchup was a vegetable, and his economic voodoo would create a decade-long debt crisis, but he was able to move smoothly into the White House and, with the help of seasoned aides like James Baker and James Brady, reassure the public that he was in control. His transition wasn’t perfect, but it does provide more positive lessons than those of the two Democratic governors who occupied the office on the bookends of Reagan and Bush’s 12-year reign.
Both Carter and Clinton came to the presidency without Washington experience. Though they’d tapped into enough of the public’s concerns to carry a national election, neither was quite ready for the White House. They hadn’t faced off with Congress; they lacked experience in the federal bureaucracy, and they were accustomed to the administrative intimacies of the smaller states they’d governed–places where they could bump into a cabinet secretary in the cafeteria and run into constituents on the street every morning. Worse, neither Carter nor Clinton tapped a strong chief of staff with federal government experience to compensate for their own lack of experience inside the Beltway. A competent chief of staff is critical to breaking up the logjam, queuing up those waiting at your door, and helping the new president figure out the movements of the bureaucracy. In the beginning, Carter tried to get by without a chief of staff at all, while Clinton appointed a trusted friend who didn’t know the White House.
And it cost them. While both Carter and Clinton brought good policies to the White House, and had later successes, they both accomplished far less than they could have if they’d gotten off to good starts. With Clinton the point is particularly clear: His greatest accomplishment has been the success of his economic policies, not coincidentally the one part of his administration’s plan that he was able to set off on the right foot. He carefully considered top economic appointees and organized a pre-inaugural conference in Little Rock where he showed a keen understanding of economic policy. The rest of his transition was chaotic; many of his later appointments were made haphazardly, and he soon lost the faith of the public–setting the stage for later stumbles that plagued his first years in office. Fortunately the mistakes he made, as with similar mistakes made by Carter, are the kind the next president can learn from. Those lessons might save him from leaving his press secretary to stand at the podium saying “mistakes were made,” as Clinton did.
The Peanut Gallery
Jimmy Carter became president by attacking Washington. Hewing to his roots as a peanut farmer, Carter shunned limousines, wore blue jeans, and banned the playing of “Hail to the Chief.” You can run the country in Wranglers just as well as in an Armani suit. It’s the substance of the candidate, not his appearance, that counts. But Carter not only dispensed with the Washington uniform, he scorned Washington’s ways–even knocking the government itself. He wanted to run the White House with his own style; the lessons and traditions of the past be damned. Not surprisingly, Washington bit back.
Upon taking office, Carter made his first major error when, in an effort to avoid appearing as autocratic as Nixon had been, he decided to serve as his own chief of staff–ignoring the counsel of a few wise men from the outgoing administration who tried to warn him of the dangers inherent in failing to appoint someone with an iron fist and an insider’s understanding of Washington.
When Carter officials visited Dick Cheney, Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, during the 1976 transition, Cheney gave them a broken bicycle wheel to make his case for a strong chief of staff. Like Carter, Ford had initially embraced a more democratic organizational chart for the White House, coming up with the “bicycle wheel” model of presidential management. Senior officials were all granted equal status, like the spokes of a wheel that connect directly to the hub, or president.
The arrangement quickly collapsed because the presidency is just too complicated. Agency missions overlap, too many people have issues that needle president’s attention, and without a set schedule, the commander in chief wastes precious time bouncing from one minor priority to the next. Nonetheless, Carter ignored the wheel and blundered ahead. The result was like a schoolyard soccer game, Carter advisor Harrison Wellford recalls. “Everybody runs to whatever ball is bouncing at the moment because everybody wants to get a piece of the action while they can,” he says. Trying to direct his staff’s energies toward policy development, Carter became a referee.
It didn’t help matters that when taking office, Carter pledged to reduce the imperial status of the presidency by cutting 30 percent of White House staff. “[That’s] something no one who has been in that kind of executive position would have done,” Paul Light of the Brookings Institution says. Cutting staff isn’t impossible, but it courts disaster when, like Carter and almost all of the people working for him, the people making the cuts haven’t been around long enough to differentiate between Washington’s administrative muscle and fat.
At the same time he was proposing to reduce the White House staff, Carter was proposing a sprawling agenda. Plans and schemes seemed to drop out of his shirt sleeves every time he turned around–from an immediate nuclear test ban to fuel saving measures to a universal $50 tax rebate. According to Wellford, “There was an effort to … enshrine his campaign promises in a golden book that would define the objectives of the new [administration].”
Actually getting such an agenda past his shirt sleeves required some assistance from Congress, but Carter failed to realize that even Democratic legislators needed schmoozing before they would embrace the new president’s to-do list. Not only did they forget the candy and flowers, Carter and his staff mistreated the lions of Congress–critical allies since Democrats had nearly a two-to-one advantage in both the House and Senate in 1977. During his inauguration, for example, Carter failed to give choice tickets to Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Then, just three days into his administration, Carter awarded an ambassadorship-at-large to Elliott Richardson, one of O’Neill’s Massachusetts Republican rivals. Afterwards, according to Newsweek, O’Neill admonished Hamilton Jordan, one of Carter’s top advisers: “I don’t think you understand, son. The next time you do this I’m going to kick your ass.”
The lesson didn’t sink in. Soon afterwards, without consulting the appropriate congressional representatives, Carter attempted to slash funding for water projects in 17 states–a suicidal mission given Congress’ dependence on pork. The measure angered representatives whose states benefited from the projects. Then the eventual compromise, which allowed funding for eight of those projects, angered environmental groups.
In a way, Carter wanted Washington to be like Georgia, but there’s simply no way an executive can stay on top of all the ins and outs of the system as he can in a smaller state government. The president doesn’t just have to oversee his own staff and the sprawling civil service; he’s got to have enough of a handle on things that he can be instantly brought up to date with the State Department’s policy toward Angola and the latest goings-on at the Department of Agriculture. Carter eventually realized this and appointed Jordan as his chief of staff, but by then, extensive damage had already been done.
To find a president who successfully managed the White House without a knowledgeable chief of staff, you have to go back to Franklin Roosevelt. In addition to having served as governor of New York, Roosevelt spent eight years as assistant secretary to the navy, giving him experience at the federal level where policymaking intersects with the civil service. Carter’s limited experience in a smaller state left him well out of his league.
Morning in America
Unlike Carter, Ronald Reagan learned from Ford’s error and appointed an extremely competent chief of staff, James Baker, who had worked in the executive branch in Washington. The chief of staff holds the second most important job in the White House, and coming from outside of Washington, Reagan wisely appointed someone who could compensate for his own lack of federal experience. Baker then chose the quick-witted Richard Darman as his deputy.
Between them, Darman and Baker had worked in four important agencies: Commerce, Justice, Health and Human Services, and Defense. Reagan did give top positions to long-time friends and fellow Californians Ed Meese and Michael Deaver. But as long Baker and Darman were around, someone always knew which bureaucratic buttons to push.
Beyond appointing veterans as his gatekeepers, Reagan also kept a sharp focus on a limited agenda. Unlike Carter, Reagan set a small group of core goals: increased defense spending, a smaller role for the federal government, and tax cuts. He made an early priority of decreasing spending by crafting a trim budget late in 1980 and submitting it to Congress about a month after his inaugural. Reagan also knew enough to assign key jobs early, and his staff appointments were staggered throughout his transition period, coming no later than three weeks before the inaugural. He thus kept the White House running smoothly and maintained the confidence of the American people, perhaps the most important part of a transition.
Bubba in Paradise
Clinton’s approach to the transition was as different from Reagan’s as his ideology. Some of what he tried worked. Clinton had run with the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid!” Once elected, he prioritized economic growth and organized his economic conference in Little Rock. He carefully considered key economic appointments and assigned top positions to knowledgeable people like Leon Panetta (Office of Management and Budget), Robert Rubin (National Economic Council), Lloyd Bentsen (Treasury Department), and Laura D’Andrea Tyson (Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors).
Not coincidentally, the strength of the economy has been one of Clinton’s crowning achievements. His economic plan was in place by the summer of 1993; his carefully selected appointees helped the nation weather storm after economic storm, and he never lost the faith of the bond markets–which many credit with bringing lower interest rates and higher levels of prosperity.
But the rest of Clinton’s transition was a mess; he lost the public’s faith and was set up for the failures of his first two years. His health-care plan crashed and he was forced to declare in 1995 that, indeed, he was still “relevant.” After his election in ’92, Clinton seemed to spend most of his time in late-night bull sessions or mulling over cabinet appointments. Waiting until the last minute to name most of his White House staff, Clinton came to office unprepared to govern. He couldn’t stick to his agenda; his new staff was filled with 20-somethings; and he didn’t seem to have any senior advisers around him even who knew how to find the White House bathrooms. As he told The New Yorker, “For the first two years … I was trying to learn the job, learning how to get the White House functioning.”
In part, Clinton’s slow start came from his team’s post-election arrogance. Some on the Clinton team didn’t want to stop thinking about tomorrow and they forgot about yesterday. According to Marlin Fitzwater, Reagan’s and Bush’s well-respected press secretary, when Fitzwater met George Stephanopolous to discuss the ins and outs of the job, Stephanopolous put his feet on the table and made it clear that they’d only need about five minutes to get through their business. Part of the slow start was circumstantial: Being the first Democratic president since Carter not only left him with fewer Democratic White House veterans to tap, but also meant that liberal interest groups were hungry to push their pent-up agendas.
Clinton also tied his administration’s legs together by appointing childhood friend and Arkansas businessman Thomas “Mack” McLarty as chief of staff. McLarty was loyal to Clinton but he didn’t know the first thing about how Washington really worked. Although outsiders in some areas in an administration can insert fresh ideas, it is essential the people in top positions have both legislative and executive experience at the federal level. Kennedy and Ford had extensive experience in Congress, but not in the executive branch; Clinton finally got both kinds of experience in just one man when he named Leon Panetta, who had directed the OMB and had served as a congressman, as his second chief of staff.
After appointing McLarty, Clinton stopped filling his staff positions. By the time Clinton selected a congressional liaison, press secretary, domestic policy advisor, and general counsel, the inauguration was less than a week away. Instead, Clinton had focused on the noble but laborious process of fulfilling his campaign promise to create a cabinet that mirrored the country’s ethnic and racial makeup. He also spent weeks embroiled in controversy after his top two picks for attorney general, Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, were tripped up by issues regarding their hired help.
Four months to the day after Clinton was sworn in, the White House announced that seven employees from the White House travel office had been fired following a week-long audit by Peat Marwick. Clinton’s 25-year-old cousin was appointed to take over the operations. A week later, the White House backpedaled and rehired five of the seven staffers after a week of gripes from the press corps, which used the office to make travel arrangements. The whole episode, while fairly minor, created the impression that the Clinton White House was in total chaos.
Like Carter, Clinton also ran into trouble with Congress right off the bat. Almost immediately after coming to office, Clinton tried to raise grazing fees and slash mining subsidies for ranchers and miners operating on federal land. Not surprisingly, senators from Western states, a disproportionately powerful group, screamed bloody murder and tried to crush the initiatives.
Clinton yielded and withdrew the measure, simultaneously letting down his supporters in the House and upsetting environmentalists while gaining little favor with the infuriated Western congressmen.
As president-elect, he offhandedly announced that he would allow gays to serve in the military, setting off a national firestorm: The proposal distracted attention from the rest of his agenda, and weakened his standing with the military. Although Clinton’s intentions were noble, his mistake was in pursuing so controversial a change before becoming well established as president and earning the public’s and the military’s trust.
In the end, the Clinton transition is probably best summed up by the results of Filegate. In a rush to obtain security clearances for White House personnel, the president’s staff had inadvertently suboutdated list to the FBI, which responded by sending over confidential files on some 900 people–many of whom happened to be Clinton’s political adversaries. In June 1996, the media got wind of the administration’s possession of the files, and the Republicans called out the hounds. Four years later, the special counsel office cleared the White House: Clinton wasn’t guilty of malice, just incompetence.
When the next president moves into the White House, the decisions he makes during those first few months have the potential to define his place in the history books. Al Gore or George W. Bush will have the advantage of knowing these lessons from the past, but they’ll undoubtedly be faced with some new challenges. Some will be beyond their control–most notably, the fact that the entire nomination process has been slowed as Congress has become more partisan and even FBI background checks seem to take longer. More than half the appointees confirmed between 1984 and 1999 waited five months or more for Senate confirmation, according to a recent report funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. By contrast, a mere one-sixth of the appointees confirmed between 1964 and 1984 waited that long.
Fortunately, the new president will also have a little more help than some of his early predecessors; administration staffers aren’t the only ones interested in a smooth transition. Over the years, various groups and individuals have floated ideas to pass some of the key knowledge from one administration to the next. In September, Congress amended the Presidential Transition Act, a law passed in 1963 to provide transition funding that was increased in the 1970s and indexed to inflation in the 1980s. If approved by Clinton, the act will fund orientation training for incoming senior-level appointees and provide them with critical information on the responsibilities and mission of their departments. Perhaps the best source of information though, are past occupants of top White House positions, who are much more likely to share their experiences than commonly thought; after all, they’re patriots too.
One reform that should be made is to establish a small core of permanent civil servants in the offices of the White House. Their knowledge of how the offices function and what succeeded and failed in the past could make transitions less problematic by providing each new administration with institutional memory.
Despite all this information, it will still be up to the winning candidate whether he sinks or swims. Gore seems to have a strong advantage. Having served as vice president for eight years, he has a deep interest in all elements of government, and has even been willing to stick his fingers into the least sexy programs like government reinvention. Bush’s victory, on the other hand, would be a little more worrisome. While Dick Cheney will bring the bicycle wheel, none of Bush’s triumvirate of top advisers–Joe Allbaugh, Karl Rove, and Karen Hughes–have extensive federal experience. Might Bush make Carter and Clinton’s mistake and assume that serving as governor is adequate preparation for the Oval Office?