Disarray in the White House Staff : Doesn’t anybody know how to play this game?

The wholesale firing of the White House travel office staff that presidential Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers last week tried to portray as a bold attack on mismanagement and possible fraud in government is now acknowledged by Communications Director George Stephanopoulos to have been hasty, mischaracterized and--grudgingly admitted--perhaps even unfair.

“The question,” said Stephanopoulos as he announced the return to full pay and benefit status of five of the seven employees who, he now maintains, were never really fired at all, “is whether the people who were hurt did anything to merit it.” Surely, though, someone on President Clinton’s staff should have thought to ask that very basic question before the careers of the fired employees were so abruptly interrupted and their reputations were so publicly smeared. Punishment usually comes after a determination of wrongdoing.

The travel office fiasco has become the most visible and certainly the least defensible of the staff gaffes that are proving an increasing embarrassment to Clinton and that are causing his Administration no end of political grief.

Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole notwithstanding, the screw-ups at the White House--not least an out-of-line approach to the FBI to investigate the travel office after the decision to fire its employees was made--do not have the corrupt aroma of Watergate about them. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was a lot closer to the mark when he described the bumbling at the White House as an amateur-hour performance by a bunch of “rookies.” That metaphor, however, can be pushed too far. Sports fans can be tolerant of rookies as they learn from their mistakes on the job. But the White House is not some expansion team that can shrug off its blunders now in expectation of having a good season three or four years hence. It’s the heart of the U.S. government, and everything done there has an unavoidable bearing on how an Administration is judged.

Bill Clinton is known for loyalty to his friends and staff. But it’s also no secret that he wants to be a successful President, and certainly a reelectable one. He can’t achieve those goals on his own, however. He needs help. He needs help from friends who know when not to call him seeking favors. He needs help from staffers who know what they are doing, who understand how Washington works and not least who have the guts to say no when the situation demands, as in “No, Mr. President, you should not get a haircut, especially one costing $200, on an airport runway.” It’s apparent that the sometimes visible lack of political savvy on the White House staff is not serving the President well. The responsibility for doing something about it is his alone.