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In Clinton’s Cabinet Picks, Friendship Not High Priority

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When President Clinton selected those who would become the top leaders of his administration after his 1992 election, the group included a kindergarten classmate, a graduate-school friend who steered him to his future wife and a longtime friend of the first lady who ran his successful campaign.

Around the Cabinet table were political soul mates like Henry G. Cisneros and intellectual sparring partners like Robert B. Reich, who first met the president when they were 23-year-olds on a ship going to Britain as Rhodes scholars and who later arranged Clinton’s first date with Hillary Rodham at Yale University.

Although some of those who have been close to Clinton for years will continue to fill important administration jobs--including Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley--the new team will include many officials whose history with the president began after he came to Washington.

The reasons for this are clear. Clinton feels more comfortable with the bureaucracy beneath him. And he has seen many of its leading figures in action.

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Reich, who was Clinton’s Labor secretary, said it was natural for Clinton to start his first term by calling on old friends or close associates from the National Governors’ Assn. and on central players in his 1992 campaign. At the time, the new president had to put a premium on trust, Reich said.

“The Democrats had not been in Washington in the executive branch for a dozen years,” he said. “The president needed people he knew well and could rely on. After four years, he is experienced and the administration is experienced. He knows that he can rely on the new people . . . because they all have track records of one sort of another.”

Trust, of course, was not always enough. Although most of the friends and close associates Clinton brought in served the full four years, there were some exceptions, most notably Thomas “Mack” McLarty, a Clinton friend since kindergarten who was his first White House chief of staff.

The White House was reputed to be a sloppy ship under “Mack the Nice,” who was replaced 17 months into Clinton’s first term by Leon E. Panetta--a former California congressman with few ties to Clinton. Panetta had impressed senior White House officials as director of the Office of Management and Budget.

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The choice became a metaphor for Clinton’s selections after November’s election. Instead of importing most of his talent, he is choosing Washington officials with whom he has had few long-term connections, although he has worked with or observed them during his first four years. Among them:

* Secretary of State nominee Madeleine K. Albright, whom Clinton watched with admiration in her first-term role as ambassador to the United Nations.

* Defense Secretary-designee William S. Cohen, who won Clinton’s respect as a Maine Republican senator willing to work across partisan lines.

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* Rep. Bill Richardson, nominated to replace Albright at the United Nations. The New Mexico Democrat was a faithful congressional ally of Clinton and one who engaged in high-profile globe-trotting to win the release of Americans held captive in such places as Sudan and North Korea.

* Labor Secretary-nominee Alexis Herman, whom Clinton observed as director of the White House office of public liaison.

* Janet Yellen, named to chair the White House Council of Economic Advisors, who had served as a governor on the Federal Reserve Board.

Some political analysts said that the president may be better off--if lonelier--choosing people who are not longtime friends. “Just because you’re a pal of the president doesn’t mean you can run a complex organization,” said Larry Sabato, professor of government at the University of Virginia.

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Still, Clinton has told acquaintances that the imminent departure of some of his closest confidants has left him feeling blue--and it’s not just their abilities as administrators or policy-makers that he will miss. They were in touch with the president on deeper levels and they could speak to him candidly and forcefully.

“Long-term familiarity allows a certain informality that is simply not there in newer relationships,” Reich said.

The president has told acquaintances that he will especially miss Cisneros and Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor, who was U.S. trade representative before moving to Commerce.

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Kantor, a friend of the first lady since the late 1970s, played a unique role for the president. He was in touch with Clinton’s spirit and conscience, according to many of Clinton’s friends.

Clinton has told acquaintances that many times, when things were not going well for him, a Kantor phone call would help him get his feet back on the ground.

Kantor’s loss “is the greatest of all in that personal sense,” said Mark Gearan, Clinton’s former White House communications director and current Peace Corps director. “During the campaign and throughout the administration, Mickey always had the ability to provide the ultimate service of being able to speak forthrightly and not be fearful to give his advice. His services will be missed.”

James Carville, a political strategist who is close to the president, agreed: “There may not be [another] person to fit Mickey’s role.”

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When someone becomes president, Carville said, even those who had been his mentors before his inauguration find it hard to relate to him. “It’s always hard to say those kinds of things to the president,” Carville said. “But the more secure your relationship with him is, the easier it is.”

The person most likely to fill that void, White House insiders said, is Erskine Bowles, who did not even meet Clinton until midway through the 1992 campaign.

“One of the reasons he reached out to Bowles is that [Bowles] will tell him when he’s wrong,” said John Podesta, who worked in the White House during the first term and, after a hiatus, is returning in the second term to be deputy chief of staff. “Although he does it quietly, he is very firm.”

Vice President Al Gore, whose relationship with the president has grown over the last four years, also is cited as someone who can “tell it straight” to the president.

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“Another reason the president feels so confident [with Gore] is that he can have a candid conversation with him and never read it anywhere, and that’s clearly the case with Erskine too,” Podesta said.

Clinton is concerned that he is losing some of his best political thinkers, like Cisneros, who the president appreciated for broad intellectual and analytical skills. Although Cisneros’ department was never among the president’s top priorities, the charismatic former mayor of San Antonio had far more influence on the president than his position would imply because of their intellectual camaraderie.

The new lineup of top administration officials will include some longtime friends of the chief executive.

Sandy Berger, named to be his new national security advisor, has been a friend of the president since the two worked on the 1972 presidential campaign of Sen. George S. McGovern.

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Riley and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who are staying, became close to Clinton when all three were governors.

Rodney Slater, the nominee to be Transportation secretary, followed Clinton all the way up the political ladder. He was an executive assistant for five years during the mid-1980s when Clinton was Arkansas governor and then served on the state highway commission. He was a deputy campaign manager for Clinton in 1992 and came to Washington to be federal highway administrator.

Commerce Secretary-designate Bill Daley is also no stranger to the president. He forged ties to Clinton by steering the North American Free Trade Agreement through a resistant Congress early in the first term.

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Given the president’s personality, however, he is likely to develop close relationships with some of the new officials.

And the president is not likely to limit himself to the counsel of those who officially work for him.

“Bill Clinton is someone who burns up the telephones late at night, reaching out and talking to friends,” said a senior White House official. “Mickey and Henry are going to be a phone call away.”

“The president’s old friends will still be his old friends. We’re not vanishing from the planet,” Reich said. “I expect he’ll call occasionally.”

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