Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Clinton's Personnel Judgement

I suppose I can tell this story...when I was a grad student, I had a long-running disagreement with a professor about the reasons for Bill Clinton's extremely spotty record on executive branch and White House appointments. His position was that it was a consequence of affirmative action: when you decide that you're going to appoint a woman as attorney general, then odds are you may wind up with a Janet Reno. Not because women are worse (for example, he was a big fan of Zoe Baird), but because when you restrict the pool, you can wind up reaching.

My position was that Bill Clinton just had absolutely terrible people judgement. Odd, because you would think that someone with (by all accounts) great political people skills wouldn't have that problem, but...well, I wound up collecting examples of Bill Clinton's dud white male choices. Les Aspin. Bernard Nussbaum. Sorry, but: Vince Foster probably wasn't the smartest choice. The big, consequential ones: Mack McLarty and Ira Magaziner.

And, for comic relief: Dick Morris. And, as Jonathan Chait reminds us: Mark Penn and Lanny Davis.

Now, Clinton did have a number of excellent personnel choices, including not only some Anglo men (Leon Panetta, Gene Sperling, Bruce Babbitt) but also plenty who were part of his "looks like America" agenda (including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg as well as Bill Richardson, Alice Rivlin, and Carol Browner, and several others). And there were other reasons for some of his poor choices. But all told, I'd say it was a weakness of his presidency, and a big part of why he got off to such a slow start in 1993-1994. The guy just wasn't very good at that part of the job.


  1. Take Al Gore. Now I rather like Gore. But the pairing of Clinton (who always had to be in trouble to stay focused) and Gore (who always had to be squeaky clean, or he shakes to pieces) was a match made in hell.

  2. My question is: who was the argument with?

  3. Might part of Clinton's problem have been his generally negative equity through the summer of 1992? Its easy to forget, given the extent to which the Clintons dominate the landscape, but he was an awfully spotty candidate through much of the 1992 campaign; folks remember the Arsenio Hall appearance as a turning point, do they remember it occurred as late as June 1992?

    This blog has often discussed how parties rally around a nominee in the general election campaign. Wondering though if insider professionals stake a position on a candidate somewhat earlier, and though they may rally around their party's (perhaps perceived inferior) candidate later, they don't necessarily adjust their professional evaluation, which in Clinton's case might have made those negative insiders unavailable for his staff.

    An illustration: suppose I was a professional sportswriter and Butler somehow managed to return to the Final Four next spring. As the tourney progressed, I would be preparing my "Butler Bulldogs=Buffalo Bills" piece, noting how each lost their first championship by a heartbreaking couple of inches, the second one in an all-around poorly-played game, while the Bills' third loss was the epic fiasco to the Cowboys. I would conclude that a Butler return to a third championship game would be a similar fiasco to the Bills' third loss.

    If Butler proceeded to win the championship, I would "rally around" the great story of the mid-major, yada yada, but I would never be a Butler guy. Coach Stevens wouldn't hire me to do promotional work for the team. Etc. Having staked my professional reputation on "We don't want Butler again", I would be mildly supportive of their win as a 'great story', but that would be about it.

    During the dark days of the Clinton candidacy, in 1991 and early 1992, perhaps the professionals weighed in and largely concluded that Clinton sucked. Sure, they supported him later when he won, but perhaps having taken a position (Clinton sucked) they weren't really in a position to join his White House. Just a thought.

  4. totally agree; I don't think he had great executive hiring skills, either. But they were light-years better then his replacement. His replacement managed to take good, bright people and tarnish them forever.

  5. Curious: did you say "Anglo" for a particular reason? -- because I would have thought that Panetta and Sperling were "white" but not "Anglo" -- then again that kind of fruitless bootless complication is probably why you avoided "white" in the first place --

  6. @the classicist---just guessing here, but possibly "Anglo" as contrasted with "Latino" (or "Hispanic").

  7. can be please stop referring to BIll Richardson as Hispanic? By that context, Obama is white.

    I think that the Democrats were out of office for 12 years explains the weak picks more than anything else.

  8. Yeah -- they use "Anglo" here in Texas, and I'm OK with it.

    As far as Bill Richardson: as far as I'm concerned, what matter is how people self-identify.

  9. Richardson's mother was Mexican and his father was part Mexican .... so in context of today's ethnic posturing (which seems to have engulfed the bureaucracy) he is Hispanic.

    I wonder if he checked that box on the recent Census? Or did he check: None of the Above?

  10. Thanks. Always good to learn about more of my Northeastern blinders! (White ethnics being really into being white ethnics as opposed to WASPs up here ...)

  11. My defense of Bill Clinton and his people judgment.

    1) Other outstanding picks: Hillary as wife and First Adviser (compare/contrast with major pols and presidents with multiple wives). Al Gore as VP and major adviser for two terms, a positive both in the campaigning and governing. Carville-Begala to run his 1992 campaign (contrast w/Hillary's 2008 disastrous picks) and as WH advisers (less successful there).

    2) Bernie Nussbaum: He may have had his flaws as WH counsel, but on one crucial matter -- whether Clinton should call for a special counsel on Whitewater -- BN was right on the money in arguing strongly against it (the SC would take on a life of its own and lead down all sorts of unending paths, exactly as it turned out)

    3) Political climate of the times: the GOP and their many MSM friends were out to destroy the Clinton presidency from day one, which put enormous pressure on WH personnel who normally might have done their jobs much more competently. Such daily pressure that we got the Vince Foster suicide, and at least one top aide, Geo Stephanopolous, had to seek private therapy.

    4) Weak or thin Dem bench from which to select experienced WH personnel (true, Bill made the bench smaller by avoiding Carter people).

    Generally I don't find Bill's people picking skills to be that bad given the above context and the fact that he was from a small parochial southern state. Certainly in terms of corruption, despite the efforts of his opponents and the many investigations, nearly all his people came out clean, and often unfairly tarnished for things they didn't do or which were greatly blown out of proportion (e.g., Cisneros' getting caught fibbing to the Feebies about the amount he paid to a former mistress -- ridiculous waste of taxpayer money in investigating and prosecuting).

  12. Brodie,

    I disagree on Gore; I thought he performed well AFAIK as VP, but was a lousy candidate in '00 and wasn't a great choice for next president (although it's not as if he was Palin, Lieberman, Agnew, Ferraro, Nixon, or Quayle). On Nussbaum: right on one issue isn't good enough; his bumbling (and I'd have to go back and read for details) was a good part of why everything went wrong in that area to begin with.

    As for weak bench: we've gone over this before...there were plenty of good people available. The one real shortage was experienced WH staff, but it's not as if he had to fill the WH with people with that experience; Stephanopolous, Rahm, Reed and others were really good people, they just could have used a few with experience in the mix. But there really were some clunkers, which in some cases had severe consequences.


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