That Sinking Feeling

Is Clinton up to the job? As a staff shake-up begins and his four-month approval ratings dip to record lows, Americans are starting to wonder +

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That has been painfully apparent in the past two weeks. To build on the House victory, say senior Democrats and many Cabinet officials, Clinton must quickly reshuffle his White House. Gergen's arrival is a curious first step in that direction. Whether a Reagan Republican, even one moderated by years on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, can effectively lead a band of young, fiercely partisan White House communications operatives is far from certain. Gergen says he is "convinced" Clinton wants to "run a bipartisan government." But other than Gergen's appointment itself, there has been scant evidence of any commitment to the middle.

Even with Gergen, Clinton will still rely on a staff that has almost no White House or executive experience. Political director Rahm Emanuel, a campaign fund raiser, is unsuited as a party enforcer and is widely blamed for being too enamored of Hollywood for the President's good. White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum, a former Watergate committee staff lawyer who gave Hillary Rodham Clinton her first job, is seen by almost everyone in the White House as a political bumbler who has given his boss poor guidance on a host of matters from the nominations of Zoe Baird and Lani Guinier to the travel-office flap. Even congressional lobbyist Paster, one of the few officials with deep Washington experience, is too closely allied with the liberal House leadership for many House moderates and Senators.

Other people are simply in over their heads -- literally, in some cases. Clinton asked Arkansas chum Bruce Lindsey to oversee the appointments process and remain at his side on trips out of town. But Lindsey is so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of paper crossing his desk that he has resorted to a method of filing that consists of crisscrossing documents as they came in: one sideways, one straight, one sideways and so on. When one stack grew too tall, he started another. When he ran out of flat surfaces, he added to a previous stack. Soon the stacks collapsed of their own weight and toppled into one another, scattering layers of undifferentiated documents from one end of his office to the other in a kind of latter-day paper Pompeii. Staffers joke that only by sinking exploratory shafts can Lindsey be found each night. Partly as a result, the appointments process is a sea of chaos. "Bruce," said one, "is in a world of his own."

Nor did Clinton help himself by turning to three agreeable men to be his top aides. In McLarty, Clinton has chosen a chief of staff who has either been unwilling or unable to exert much discipline on the President or his staff. Deputy chief of staff Mark Gearan is well liked, but as one campaign consultant put it, "If Mack or Mark were really angry at you, you wouldn't wet your pants. So how scared do you think Danny Rostenkowski is going to be?" Clinton tried to remedy the situation by putting Gore aide Roy Neel in charge of "day to day" operations four weeks ago, but he is a soft touch too -- and still lacks an office, a desk or a phone in the White House.

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