Office Politics: Power Plays for Clinton Summit


Apple Computer chief John A. Sculley will almost certainly be selected. So too will be developer Kathryn Thompson and Western Digital chief Roger W. Johnson, both Orange County Republicans who split with President Bush early and joined Bill Clinton’s ranks.

But for hundreds of business leaders, economists, consultants and other hopefuls, weeks of sometimes frenzied lobbying is doomed to fall short as aides to the President-elect send out invitations to next week’s economic conference here.

Conference planners, who initially talked of inviting about 100 people, now plan to roughly double that figure. But still the number of invitations will not meet demand.


“It’s an embarrassment of riches,” conference organizer Mickey Kantor says of the thousands of letters, faxes and phone calls that have poured into Clinton’s headquarters from people hoping to be invited.

Much of the lobbying may have been for naught. “You find there is an inverse correlation between the good characteristics one would want for this and the willingness to let (their qualifications) be known,” Kantor says.

Clinton officials at first referred to the sessions as a “summit” but now prefer to call it a “conference” at which the President-elect will hear from business leaders, economists and others about the problems of the economy and possible ways to improve it. Clinton aides emphasize that the conference will not be a decision-making meeting but one that Clinton will use to build support for his ideas.

Nonetheless, few prominent business leaders have left the issue to chance. “There aren’t many senior business leaders who haven’t in one way or another presented the view they would like to attend,” said James H. Dowling, chairman of Burson-Marsteller, a large public relations firm based in New York.

“The Clinton people are trying to stress this is the first of several summits,” Dowling said, “but obviously it is very important for anyone who thinks he is a senior leader in the economy.”

A chief executive of one of the nation’s largest companies placed calls to 15 top Clinton aides, telling each aide that he or she alone was the one person the executive was counting on to get him invited. Environmental and other public interest groups too have joined the fray, submitting lists of economists and consultants they would like to see at the table.


The reasons for the interest are clear: Nearly everyone who is anyone in business and economics hungers to be seen giving advice to the President-elect.

With the news media following Clinton’s own professed focus on the economy, the two days of meetings Dec. 14 and 15 promise to draw heavy coverage. At least two television networks plan to anchor nightly news programs from Little Rock during the conference, and the sessions are expected to be broadcast live on radio and television.

Some Clinton aides worry about how the enterprise will look once the conference convenes, noting that the idea sprang into public view with little advance thought about its purpose, how it would work or what message Clinton would use it to convey.

“It’ll be a bit of a zoo,” says one Clinton aide, “but it should be manageable.”

For now, however, most attention has been focused on the invitations. Clinton aides initially talked of releasing the list of invitees last week but have since decided to release the names only on the eve of the conference. The move will give conference planners maximum flexibility to add last-minute entries.

A few rough selection guidelines exist. The first, of course, is the basic rule of politics: It is best to be on board early.

People like Sculley, Johnson, Thompson and John A. Young, recently retired as president of Hewlett-Packard, are expected to be rewarded for their support during the campaign by being invited. So too is John Bryan, chairman of Sara Lee Co., who helped organize a large group of business leaders who endorsed Clinton at a campaign rally in Chicago.

Conversely, those who worked on the other side face skepticism. One prominent group of economic consultants indicated an interest in attending, Clinton aides say, but were crossed off the list after aides realized the consultants had helped prepare a report that President Bush used often in his campaign to charge that tens of thousands of automobile workers would lose their jobs if fuel economy standards were tightened, as Clinton has advocated.

Already, some people have been told by phone that an invitation will be in the mail. Others have been told not to expect one.

No elected officials will be invited--a rule that covers the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the elected “shadow senator” for the District of Columbia, who asked for an invitation. Texas billionaire Ross Perot will not be invited, either. Clinton aides say inviting the former independent presidential candidate would turn the affair into too much of a “political event.”

The rush for conference invitations is only one branch in a river of requests facing Clinton aides, as eager suitors seek everything from inaugural tickets to jobs in the new Administration. Suddenly, even obscure staff members are finding themselves highly sought after.

“Never have so many wanted so much from so few,” says one Clinton aide.

The attention has been flattering to aides but sometimes inconvenient. Clinton pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, for example, thought it amusing when, a few days after the election, he was congratulated by a stranger while waiting for the restroom on a transatlantic flight.

But he lost his sense of humor after returning home to find so many people knocking on his door with resumes one Sunday that he and his wife had to flee to a neighborhood coffee shop for peace and quiet.

“You can view this cynically or you can see it as exciting,” Greenberg says. “People want to help. They’re looking for ways to get involved.”

Greenberg, who once taught at Yale University, has received hundreds of letters from former students and faculty colleagues. Clinton policy aide Bruce Reed has gotten letters from people who think they went to camp with him years ago.

And media consultant Mandy Grunwald has also been besieged by letters and telephone calls from people who have seen her on television speaking for Clinton and who hope she can help them with a job, an invitation or a policy idea.

“I haven’t gotten any roses, but you can tell them I recommend it,” she jokes.

And many Clinton aides believe the peak of the attention has not yet come. So far, the campaign has received roughly 10,000 resumes, says transition finance director Eli Segal.

By Inauguration Day, that number will swell to 30,000 or more, Segal predicts. Moreover, the massive rush for tickets to the inaugural has just begun, Clinton aides say. With the announcement last week of the inaugural events, the pressure for tickets is expected to grow exponentially in the weeks ahead.

Times staff writers Linda Grant in New York, John O’Dell in Orange County and James Flannigan in Los Angeles contributed to this story.