Another Pizza, Another Policy: Decision-Making in the Clinton White House

By Thompson, Richard K. | Contemporary Review, October 1995 | Go to article overview
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Another Pizza, Another Policy: Decision-Making in the Clinton White House


Thompson, Richard K., Contemporary Review


Republican Senator Bob Dole never fails to get a laugh when he says that President Clinton's only foreign policy success occurred in Singapore when he got Michael Fay's lashes reduced from six to four. When jokes like that start making the rounds, you know that the American president is in trouble. It probably signals a continuation of the one-term president malady, a political disease that has afflicted America in the last half of this century. It is hard to believe, but since Franklin Roosevelt's death in 1945, only two presidents--Eisenhower and Reagan--have completed two full terms as the chief executive. Restoring stability to the White House is just about the only argument one can think of to support the re-election of Mr. Clinton.

In politics, when even your friends perceive weakness, most of them cease being your friends. Thus, Clinton has had to endure an endless string of indignities from those who should be on his side. In both the Washington Post and the New York Times, you can read the ultimate heresy: he can't get re-elected. Almost all of the aides he brought with him from Arkansas have been fired, forced to resign, or are plea bargaining with the Whitewater prosecutor. Last year, even Clinton's own pollster urged Democratic Congressional candidates to distance themselves from the President, although the Clinton drag on the ticket proved so strong that many of them lost anyway.

Instead of rounding up the usual scapegoats, perhaps the time has come for the President to look into the mirror. Elected as something called a `new' Democrat, Mr. Clinton is head of an Administration composed of an odd assortment of young and old liberals. One-third of his White House staff couldn't even get a security clearance in the early days of his presidency.

Like too many American politicians, Clinton started out by dreaming how the history books would evaluate him. He decided he would be remembered for his domestic initiatives, in which universal health care would shine as the crown jewel. He lost most of those battles, and now events have forced him to focus his energy and attention on the subject he likes the least, foreign affairs. The ironies abound--like the fact that international policy is now made by a man who once planned protests against his country outside the US embassy in London, or that the man who serves as commander-in-chief once wrote how he loathed the American military.

To Clinton, foreign policy had always meant Vietnam. His Administration would be different. International crises would be left to the United Nations to resolve. In the spirit of the 1960s, America would spend its resources on ploughshares rather than guns. Instead of waging war, the US would `build nations'. Perhaps this explains why he assembled such a weak foreign policy team.

Insiders on Capitol Hill will tell you that the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, is in charge of all things that don't matter. Last year, the Secretary complained to the press that `even the golf pro sees more of the President than I do'. The big decisions are made in the Oval Office when Mr. Clinton calls in Christopher's deputy, Strobe Talbot.

Talbot -- an expert on Russian poetry -- shared rooms with Clinton when at Oxford and later became a staff writer for Time magazine where he is best remembered for his pro-Soviet views. Being number two at the State Department is a perfect job for a man driven by ideology rather than ambition.

Among the other participants at these sessions is said to be Morton Halperin. Thanks to overwhelming criticism in the Senate, his nomination to a high Pentagon post failed. Clinton then named him to the National Security staff at the White House, a position that does not require Senate confirmation. Conservatives remember Halperin ruefully as the man once accused of leaking intelligence secrets to the press.

Other top Clinton advisers such as the young George Stephanopoulos pop in from time to time for what has been described as casual decisionmaking in a feet on-the-desk, pizza-and-beer atmosphere.

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