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NEWS ANALYSIS : As Cabinet Ousters Go, Clinton’s Aim Is True : White House: Some cry, some leak, some delegate. But when a President fires a top aide, it’s never easy.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is, of all presidential decisions, perhaps the hardest one short of going to war--and almost certainly the one most often mishandled: firing a top aide.

Franklin D. Roosevelt temporized. Dwight D. Eisenhower tried indirection. Richard Nixon wept. Ronald Reagan waited for his wife. And now President Clinton, to the surprise of many, has delivered an object lesson in how the deed should be done.

“It’s a little bit breathtaking by the standards of the rest of the year,” said Princeton University professor Fred Greenstein, a leading scholar on the presidency. The resignation of Les Aspin as secretary of defense was, he said, “one of those things where the knives don’t show and everyone is in sync. It almost sounds like some other presidency” in comparison with the personnel moves of Clinton’s early months.

Adding to the surprise is the impression, held by many, that this was precisely the sort of act that Clinton--the man portrayed as wanting everyone to love him--would avoid at almost any cost.

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All the surprise, however, may have been unwarranted. Despite Clinton’s desire to be liked, he repeatedly in his political career has demonstrated a readiness to cut his losses when needed, even if that means cutting off a longtime associate.

While a willingness to sacrifice the careers of others hardly seems the most endearing of characteristics, it is a characteristic that presidents can seldom do without.

Advisers to George Bush, for example, suggested through parts of 1991 and much of 1992 that he resolve the feuding within his economic team and dismiss at least one of his warring advisers, with Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady being the warrior most often suggested for the ax. Bush refused, in part out of loyalty to an old friend, and stuck with a team that proved unable to develop a persuasive economic strategy, damaging his bid for reelection.

Aides said later that Bush, blinded by his huge popularity after the Persian Gulf War, refused to realize that his political standing was so bad as to require a shake-up. Clinton, elected with only 43% of the vote, has not had the luxury of such self-deceptions.

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Earlier this fall, amid mounting criticism of his foreign policy team, Clinton quietly began talking with a small number of top aides about replacing Aspin, White House sources said.

Even as officials publicly denied that any such moves were in the works, Chief of Staff Thomas (Mack) McLarty began developing a list of replacements. And although some officials suggested holding off a decision on Aspin until after the NATO summit next month, Clinton rejected that idea and insisted on finishing the matter before the end of the year.

Even some of the President’s own advisers were surprised at the decision. “A lot of people didn’t think he would do it,” one said.

In fact, the evidence of Clinton’s ability to make such decisions has been present for a long time but went largely ignored as journalists and political observers instead focused on his desire to get along.

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In Arkansas, for example, Clinton owed much of his career to his longtime aide Betsey Wright, who laid the strategy for his return to the governor’s office after the state’s voters turned him out after one term. Wright then became Clinton’s powerful chief of staff--an alter ego in the eyes of many. But after several years in which her personality became an increasing liability for him, Clinton dismissed her.

Mickey Kantor, the Los Angeles lawyer who served as Clinton’s presidential campaign chairman, provides another example. Last fall, when Kantor overplayed his hand by producing a plan for the transition that would have frozen out several other top Clinton aides, the then-President-elect unceremoniously dropped him.

A few weeks later, however, Kantor was back--this time as Clinton’s nominee for U.S. trade representative. Top White House officials say Aspin also may return to another Administration post a few months down the road--perhaps as an ambassador.

Similarly, Clinton has repeatedly shuffled the assignments of White House staff members, changes that on several occasions have been personally painful for his aides.

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In the most prominent example, Clinton abruptly removed George Stephanopoulos from his job as communications director when he added David Gergen to the staff.

Although Stephanopoulos’ new job as a senior adviser to Clinton provides him more direct power than the old post, the public manner in which the shift was made caused him considerable distress.

In contrast with some other presidents who managed to turn fired aides into bitter enemies, “Clinton has a way of handling these things which leaves people still willing to work for him,” said one senior White House aide. “People feel he cares for them.”

Aides said that in Aspin’s case, Clinton put a high priority on ensuring that the defense secretary’s departure be handled smoothly, with a successor already in place and no leaks to the press in advance--a sharp contrast to the anguishing public abandonments of attorney general nominee Zoe Baird and Justice Department nominee C. Lani Guinier earlier this year.

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“He knew it needed to be done so there would be continuity, and it had to be done with dignity,” said a senior White House official. “There were a couple of cases when he was governor and he needed to make changes, and he didn’t let them hang out there, they didn’t languish. He just did it.”

That is the aspect of the decision that other presidents have most often flubbed.

Presidents almost “all handle this sort of thing badly because it’s a bad situation,” said historian Steven Ambrose, a biographer of Eisenhower and Nixon.

To begin with, the decision to get rid of a top official, whether a White House aide or a Cabinet member, inevitably calls into question the President’s judgment in having hired the person in the first place.

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Moreover, Ambrose said, “you give up a lot in taking one of these jobs.” Aspin, for example, “gave up the chairmanship” of the House Armed Services Committee, “gave up a secure seat. You put him in the toughest job in the Cabinet and then after a year say: ‘Bye.’ Sure it’s tough.”

In Aspin’s case, said a former senior official close to Clinton, that aspect “made it hard for the President.”

Clinton “really agonized over it” worrying about “what does Aspin do now? He’s not going to run a company,” the former official said.

Faced with such questions, presidents often hesitate, sometimes for months, before pulling the trigger.

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Roosevelt, for example, “almost never fired anyone,” preferring instead to create new posts or find other ways to work around people who were not working, Greenstein said. Truman was more blunt but created enemies. He fired Henry Wallace as commerce secretary, for example, only to have Wallace run a third-party campaign against him in 1948.

Eisenhower found firing anyone “extremely distasteful,” Ambrose said. In 1956, he tried to use emissaries to hint to Nixon that he should step down as vice president--hints that Nixon ignored.

Nixon, in his turn, “could never bring himself to do it,” Ambrose said. For example, he noted, Nixon kept Secretary of State William P. Rogers in office long after stripping him of most real influence.

Ambrose said that as the Watergate scandal began to surround Nixon, the embattled President decided to dismiss his two top White House aides, H. R. (Bob) Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman. The situation was “just dreadful,” he said. “He had them up to Camp David and cried. He told each of them the same line about how he couldn’t sleep. He hinted at suicide. It was awful.”

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Reagan declined to fire Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan, forcing other aides to engage in an elaborate conspiracy of press leaks involving First Lady Nancy Reagan. The campaign persisted until the embattled chief of staff finally gave up in bitterness and anger.

Of Aspin’s departure, Ambrose said: “This was handled as well as any, better than most. It’s really quite remarkable.”

Times Washington Bureau Chief Jack Nelson and staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this story.


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