CAN `MACK THE NICE' CUT IT IN THE CAPITAL?
It's early one February morning, and two men sitting in the White House mess are engaged in animated conversation. Oilman Boone Pickens, chairman of Mesa Inc., munches his bran muffin and gets right to the point: He fears that the White House, in its zeal for a cleaner environment, will lavish all its attention on promoting electric cars. Couldn't cars fueled by natural gas get an equal push?
White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III picks at his fruit plate and promises to give the idea some thought. It barely matters to the ex-chairman of Arkla Inc., a giant gas distributor, that Pickens is a Republican. McLarty likes nothing better than lending an ear to a corporate chieftain unaccustomed to dealing with a Democratic Administration. "No big deal," he later shrugs. "Boone likes gas. I like gas. This Administration likes gas." That satisfies Pickens: "Mack is a straight-up guy."
Thanks to McLarty, you can hardly visit the White House these days without tripping over a CEO. And no doubt about it, Corporate America loves the open-door policy. "I have no idea what McLarty does with the information I give him, but he's always willing to listen," says American Telephone & Telegraph Co. Chairman Robert E. Allen. Compared with previous staff chiefs, "Mack is very open," notes Wayne Valis, executive director of the Trade Association Liaison Council. "I was once at a meeting where John Sununu screamed at business leaders and told one he'd cut his [expletive deleted] off with a chain saw." And that, grins Valis, was Sununu on his best behavior.
"IMPOSSIBLE JOB." No one would accuse McLarty of being domineering. Unlike Sununu, who knocked heads for George Bush, McLarty is well-liked. What he isn't--not yet, at least--is feared or considered a star political strategist.
The Chief of Staff's job is never easy. But McLarty's soft-shoe style and Clinton's desire to be at the center of decisions have made it that much tougher. So has another Clinton invention: the casting of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore in policy roles. Sighs one White House adviser: "Bill Clinton doesn't want a real chief of staff. Mack has the impossible job of trying to establish a structure for someone who has absolutely no sense of discipline." The result, says a top aide to several GOP Presidents, is that "McLarty has become a ceremonial chief of staff."
"Mack is not into power," counters White House Counselor David R. Gergen. "He's convinced that his most important responsibility is finding good people to put in charge of things, not making decisions himself." Adds Gore: "The President trusts Mack totally. He's an extraordinarily capable manager."
Unlike most staff chiefs, "McLarty is not really a political operator," asserts Bert Rockman of the University of Pittsburgh. "The closest resemblance is to [Bush lieutenant Samuel K.] Skinner, who turned out to be a total dud."
That view seems a bit harsh. It doesn't give McLarty credit for inheriting an inexperienced team. McLarty's critics also blame him--perhaps unrealistically--for not doing more to change the President's Clintocentric management style. To please Clinton, "he's become more of a personal counselor than a traditional chief of staff," says James P. Pfiffner, a professor at George Mason University. "The danger of this is that no one runs the staff."
Indeed, the White House still lurches unpredictably. For every deft maneuver, such as the seamless removal of Defense Secretary Les Aspin, there are several near-disasters, such as the abortive nomination of replacement Bobby Ray Inman or the inept handling of the Whitewater scandal.
OUTREACH WORKER. These alternating bouts of competence and confusion sow doubts about McLarty. Can a man who has known Clinton since the pair smooshed finger paint in Miss Mary's nursery school tell his friend to come clean on Whitewater? The evidence isn't encouraging. "Mack wanted to deal with the mess sooner," says one source, adding that McLarty couldn't overcome Hillary's resistance to disclosing her role in the land venture.
McLarty agonized over calls for a special counsel: "If you acquiesce, you have to ask yourself, 'What am I doing to the President?'" Says the former GOP White House official: "Being First Friend is incompatible with being a good chief of staff."
McLarty seems more comfortable as a roving salesman for Clinton. Soon after the Pickens breakfast, he invited Ralph Nader over for a chat. McLarty regularly touches base with Jesse Jackson, NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Chavis, and antipoverty advocates. Many staff chiefs assign lobbying and liaison chores to subordinates. But at least McLarty can show results for his exertions: He won some votes during last year's fights over the budget and the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Swell, say Washington insiders. But who's minding the store while McLarty schmoozes? "Mack's forever visitin' with folks," gripes an aide. "What he isn't doing is making decisions." Concedes McLarty: "I do a little bit more outreach than other chiefs of staff."
McLarty sees himself as head of an entity called the "Office of the President." McLarty Enterprises is a node of order amid Clintonesque chaos, because McLarty is a clockwork executive. At dawn, his desk is covered with piles of papers that he will work through as the day unfolds. He sets timetables, reads progress reports, and assigns teams to head big projects.
Rising at 5 a.m., McLarty scans the newspapers, then slides into the driver's seat of his Ford Crown Victoria--a reminder that the family fortune derives from his father's Ford dealerships. In 15 minutes, he is at the White House. McLarty's first stop is the Oval Office, where Clinton is usually studying a briefing book that choreographs each step of his day, down to nicknames of people he will meet. From there, McLarty presides at his 8 a.m. senior staff meeting, then convenes a smaller group of 14 senior assistants, including Gergen, National Economic Council chief Robert E. Rubin, Budget Director Leon E. Panetta, and adviser George R. Stephanopoulos. The group, known as the management committee, discusses legislative strategy.
Midmorning, McLarty attends a national security briefing and holds meetings with the scheduling and press staffs. And he juggles memos from Clinton, many drafted during the two-hour slugs of free time McLarty pencils into the President's schedule. For example:
Clinton has seen a new poll showing that Texas Governor Ann W. Richards, a big supporter, is only six points ahead of GOP rival George W. Bush. What's up? McLarty makes a mental note to check with his political people.
Then there's a query asking if the government has been too slow to help hurricane victims in Florida. "Mack, put somebody on this," Clinton writes. "We need to be in good standing with the people in Florida on this disaster."
Panetta has mentioned reports that Air Force One delayed Newark air traffic during a recent trip to New Jersey. Shades of "Hairgate." Clinton demands to know what happened.
THE PRAYER. Meanwhile, McLarty is bouncing between his own meetings and those on the ever-changing schedule of his boss. McLarty discovers that Clinton plans to make unscheduled phone calls to South African leader Nelson Mandela and to Turkish Premier Tansu iller. To compensate, he trims the President's regular get-together with Rubin from 15 minutes to 5.
Later, McLarty pops into a meeting on the '96 Democratic Convention. And he drops by a lunch Clinton is hosting to court several CEOs: American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall, Anheuser-Busch Chairman August Busch III, Archer Daniels Midland CEO Dwayne Andreas, General Motors CEO John Smith Jr., TRW Chairman Joseph Gorman, and Travelers Chairman Sanford Weill.
As the day winds on, McLarty will return dozens of calls, meet with three reporters, and attend a long-range scheduling meeting. At 6 p.m., McLarty briefly reviews the day with Clinton. Then he heads home for a small dinner party hosted by his wife, Donna Kay.
McLarty delegates enormous authority to deputies Harold Ickes and Philip Lader. A fiery liberal, Ickes is a New York lawyer who came aboard in January. He serves as McLarty's vice-president for political affairs, plotting strategy for the '94 elections. A favorite of the First Lady, Ickes also has to muster support for the Administration's health plan. "The prayer," says one Clintonite, "is that Hillary will--finally--listen to Harold." Lader, a South Carolina developer and co-founder of the Renaissance Weekends, is more attuned to management. He calls himself McLarty's "chief operating officer" and oversees paperwork, personnel, and Clinton's maze of White House policy councils.
McLarty's delegating doesn't end there. He lets Stephanopoulos camp out in the Oval Office all day. Nor is he threatened when the Clintons seek advice from political consultants James C. Carville and Paul E. Begala. McLarty does, however, spend lots of time keeping tabs on the First Lady and the Vice-President. "We've got a tripartite Presidency," groans a top Clintonite. "That's an enormous management problem for Mack." McLarty's tactful response: "I'd say [it's] a great privilege and opportunity. Since the Vice-President's and First Lady's staffs are an integral part of the White House, it works."
LAND MINES. But does it? Case in point: Hillarycare. Most Clinton advisers considered the First Lady's health-care plan too costly and burdensome. But neither McLarty nor other moderates made a frontal charge. Basically, the plan was punted over to Congress to fix.
McLarty's move to "empower" the Vice-President also is open to question. In his role as the Anti-Quayle, Gore is a key player on government reform, technology policy, the environment, and foreign affairs. Critics doubt whether he can perform all of these chores well.
McLarty, who prides himself on his management skills, won kudos for shaking up the political shop and improving media relations. But problems remain. The Counsel's office, headed by Hillary chum Bernard W. Nussbaum, seems unable to detect land mines buried in the resum s of nominees. Veteran pols say the former corporate attorney has a political tin ear. Nussbaum also is up to his legal briefs in Whitewater. U.S. Park Police probers feel he tried to obstruct their inquiry into the suicide of Deputy Counsel Vincent Foster Jr. "The mess in the counsel's office is Clinton's most serious staffing lapse," says Stephen J. Wayne, a Georgetown University professor. "Because of Nussbaum's closeness to Hillary, McLarty isn't fixing it."
Another trouble spot is the personnel office, which has been slow in making appointments and suffered through the Z e Baird and Lani Guinier fiascoes. Lader is on the case.
"Mack is on a learning curve," asserts Gergen. But one Clinton adviser says McLarty's crew is too easily overwhelmed. "With the exception of Gergen and a few others, the staff resembles Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," he adds. "They're smart dwarfs--but McLarty has not seen to it that Clinton gets more grown-ups around him."
Of course, McLarty wouldn't be the first slow-talking Southerner to be misjudged by Washington. For every Hamilton Jordan, there has been a Jim Baker. Indeed, the staff chief's fans insist that those who count him out are making a mistake. "Mack is like Clinton," says former Shreveport (La.) editor Lanny Keller, "he's a country boy who outslicks the city slickers." While that may prove true, the man called "Mack the Nice" has a ways to go before the cognoscenti are convinced the saying applies to him.
A BALANCE SHEET
ACCESS Only Hillary is closer to Bill Clinton
The former chairman of Arkla Inc. is trying to impose structure on Clinton's chaos and serves as CEOs' pipeline into the Oval Office
HILL-CLIMBER Strong links to powerful Sunbelt conservatives in Congress helped win key votes for NAFTA and last year's budget
POWER COUPLE Wife Donna Kay plies the Washington social circuit, winning many friends
STAFF WOES His inexperienced staffers are tagged "the Dwarfs," and personnel and legal offices are disasters
ARKIE VISION McLarty is somewhat parochial, susceptible to cronyism, and loyal to a fault
Loves to swap bridges for votes, but lawmakers take advantage of his compromising nature
His consensus management style is ill-suited for rapid-fire White House environment
DATA: BUSINESS WEEKLee Walczak in Washington, with bureau reports