Clues to Clinton Thinking Seen in Selection Process : Cabinet: In filling posts, he insisted on choices, refused to yield to pressure and could be unsentimental.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When President-elect Bill Clinton decided on his final Cabinet members Wednesday night, none came as a bigger surprise to Clinton aides or Washington insiders than his choice for attorney general: Zoe Baird, the general counsel for Aetna Life & Casualty Co.

More than any other Clinton Cabinet decision, the choice of Baird--and the process by which the President-elect arrived at her name--offers clues to the thinking of the man who, in less than four weeks, will become the 42nd President of the United States.

Clinton had decided early on to take the symbolically important step of choosing a female attorney general. Finding the right person, however, proved arduous.

By last weekend, with several potential candidates having dropped out of contention, Clinton appeared to be moving inexorably toward picking Washington attorney Brooksley E. Born--the favored candidate of women's groups that had been pressuring him to pick more female Cabinet members.

But as Clinton aides have learned repeatedly, the President-elect resists being boxed into a decision. Sensing that outside pressures were pushing him into a choice he was not comfortable with, he abruptly changed course and began considering Baird, whom he had earlier interviewed for the job of White House counsel.

Less than a week after he began considering her, Baird had the job.

For Clinton and the small circle of top advisers who have gathered with him in the sitting room of the governor's mansion nearly every day since Thanksgiving to review Cabinet possibilities, Baird's selection was only part of what one top aide called a nonstop round of "juggling and juggling" over the last few days.

"I've seen a new side of Bill Clinton," said the aide--a close friend who has known Clinton for many years. "During the campaign, we threw together a staff, hiring people sometimes on the fly. But on this he's spent hour after hour."

The Cabinet selection process worked for the most part in deep secrecy. Clinton, joined by his wife, Hillary, and Vice President-elect Al Gore, interviewed and discussed candidates accompanied by only a few of their closest aides--primarily transition director Warren Christopher, Thomas (Mack) McLarty, who will head Clinton's White House staff, longtime Clinton confidant Bruce Lindsey and Gore's chief of staff Roy Neel.

Indeed, through most of the process even the potential nominees had little idea how their fates were being resolved. On the final night, for example, Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), whose candidacy for Interior secretary had become the center of a furious argument, sat near a phone in Mexico City, where he had gone to celebrate Christmas with relatives, while aides in Washington nervously watched CNN for any indication of what was happening.

Despite the secrecy, however, enough is known to draw several lessons about Clinton.

The first lesson, as Baird's selection showed, is Clinton's insistence that he should always have choices. When, for example, aides did not come up with names of women and minorities for energy secretary, Clinton made calls on his own. One friend he called, Dennis Bakke, the head of an energy company based in Virginia, recommended Hazel O'Leary, the black woman who eventually got the job. The process also showed how serious Clinton has been about fulfilling his pledge to involve Gore in the Administration's decisions.

The Tennessee senator did not prevail on every case. For example, sources said O'Leary was not his top choice. But his presence in all aspects of the process, from initial interviews to final announcement press conferences, stands in sharp contrast to George Bush's role in Ronald Reagan's Cabinet selections or Dan Quayle's in Bush's or, indeed, the role played by nearly any other vice president-elect in this century.

Another lesson, as Clinton demonstrated on a smaller scale during his campaign, is that the President-elect can be ruthlessly unsentimental in making decisions that require treading on the feelings of old friends or supporters.

Sen. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.), spent much of the fall campaigning for Clinton, serving as one of his top surrogate speakers. As a result, many handicappers, including Wirth, were certain he would receive a top post.

The Colorado senator, whose occasionally abrasive personality had strained relations with many Senate colleagues, sought the post of head of the Environmental Protection Agency. But Gore, who wanted the EPA job to go to his former aide, Carol Browner, persuaded Wirth to seek the energy job instead.

After discussing the energy job with Clinton, Wirth spent many anxious days hearing nothing but assuming the job would come his way. But as he waited, his Senate adversaries--some motivated by personal animus, others by policy differences--ginned up a classic Washington back-stage campaign to discredit him.

At the same time, Clinton began to confront the reality that with most of his key economic and national security posts going to white men, he needed to appoint women and minority group members to the remaining domestic posts if he were to meet his goal of diversity.

Clinton first enunciated what became the ruling simile of his Cabinet process during a speech to a Cinco de Mayo celebration in San Francisco on May 11. "If you vote for me," Clinton told his audience, "I will give you an Administration that looks like America."

The words, which he repeated constantly over the succeeding six months of his campaign, stand as a classic Clintonism--a phrase that expresses good intentions but is subject to myriad interpretations.

Like his statement during the 1990 Arkansas gubernatorial campaign that if elected to a fifth term he did not intend to run for President, the diversity pledge was one that some took more literally than Clinton meant it to be.

Since women make up just more than half the American population, a Cabinet that "looks like America," would be at least half female, advocates for women's organizations argued. Advocates for blacks and Latinos made similar claims, leading a frustrated Clinton to lash out at "bean counters" who, he said, were advocating "quotas."

But Clinton's annoyance did not change the reality that the advocacy groups formed key parts of the Democratic coalition. And in any case, Clinton aides say, while he grew testy at the many demands made on him, the diversity pledge was one to which he felt personally committed.

Wirth became a casualty of the diversity drive. The morning after he decided on O'Leary, Clinton called Wirth to tell him of the decision. On the telephone, Wirth was understanding. But privately, the senator, who will soon leave office having decided last summer not to run again, seethed and blamed Senate adversaries for scuttling his chances.

Two other close Clinton allies, former Michigan Gov. James J. Blanchard and Chicago banker William Daley, similarly lost out when Clinton decided to pick former Denver Mayor Federico Pena as secretary of transportation.

A further lesson, however, should provide hope for all those disappointed office seekers: Clinton never shuts off a friend for long. Campaign chairman Mickey Kantor, for example, suffered a bruising defeat in November when Clinton turned aside his plan for structuring the post-election transition, leading Kantor detractors within the Clinton camp to denigrate him furiously to reporters.

But Clinton soon brought Kantor back as head of his successful economic conference here earlier this month and then rewarded him with the job of U.S. trade representative.

Some jobs proved easy to fill. Once Clinton knew that Christopher would take the job of secretary of state, he considered no one else. He considered no candidate for secretary of health and human services other than Donna Shalala, the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, and a friend of Hillary Clinton. Former South Carolina Gov. Richard W. Riley was the only serious candidate for secretary of education once he resolved family concerns about taking the job.

By contrast, no post proved harder to fill than attorney general. Clinton initially turned to federal Appeals Court Judge Patricia M. Wald, who combined several of the qualities he had wanted: government experience, a strong reputation within the national legal community and a commitment to public-interest legal work.

But two weeks ago, Wald, whose husband has had several serious health problems in recent years, turned down the job. Over the next several days, Clinton aides talked to her several more times to see if she would reconsider but eventually gave up and began examining other candidates.

Christopher sounded out Los Angeles attorney Shirley M. Hufstedler, a former judge and the secretary of education in the Jimmy Carter Administration. She had been a friend of Christopher since they were classmates together at Stanford Law School more than 40 years ago.

"Ten years ago, I would have considered it," Hufstedler replied, according to a friend. Now, she said, she wanted to stay in California and see her grandchildren. "This is a new generation. I don't have the energy I did 10 years ago."

"If I can do it, you can," Christopher reportedly replied, tipping his own hand on his decision to accept Clinton's offer of the job at the State Department. But Hufstedler remained unconvinced.

Through it all, leaders of several major women's organizations had mounted a heated campaign for Born, and as one candidate after another dropped out of consideration, she seemed increasingly likely for the job. Indeed, as late as Tuesday, FBI agents, charged with checking out potential nominees, were still examining Born's background, a government official said.

But Clinton and at least some of his top advisers had reservations about Born, particularly her lack of government service and experience in managing large organizations.

As doubts about Born persisted, Clinton began to think more about Baird. Clinton had known Baird and her husband, Yale Law School constitutional scholar Paul Gewirtz, for several years. The two had attended the annual Renaissance Week at Hilton Head, S.C., where Clinton has spent his post-Christmas holiday for several years. In New Haven, Conn., where she and Gewirtz live, Baird is a neighbor of Clinton pollster Stanley B. Greenberg.

Moreover, when Baird was a 28-year-old lawyer working for Carter in the White House, she did legal work to back up the negotiations Christopher conducted with Iran to free the 52 American hostages held in Tehran. Christopher was so impressed with her work that after both of them left government service, he offered her a partnership in his law firm. Last week, aides say, he played a key role in landing her a job of far greater significance.

Times staff writers Alan Miller in Washington and Ronald Brownstein in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
53°