White House Watch

In July, 1994, when Bill Clinton was touring Europe, the president's aides were, well, awestruck by the tenacity of Richard Holbrooke, then the United States Ambassador to Germany. What accounted for this reaction? During the president's visit to Germany, Holbrooke was, as one official put it, "a whirling dervish." He managed to wangle his way into top-level meetings and hounded White House staff to get airplane and helicopter seats close to Clinton. He kept annoying top White House officials with electronic pages, alerting them to interesting developments such as Germany's World Cup defeat and picayune ones such as the switch of courses for a scheduled Clinton dinner with Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Clinton staffers were incredulous. As one administration aide put it at the time: "The guy's unbelievable."

Little did Clinton staffers know that Mr. Unbelievable would wind up supervising the most volatile foreign policy issue facing the administration—Bosnia. Holbrooke, now at the State Department as the Assistant Secretary for European and Canadian Affairs, is in Dayton, Ohio, this week, trying to shepherd the Bosnian peace talks that are taking place thanks in large part to his shuttle diplomacy in the Balkans. If he pulls it off, Holbrooke the nudge could wind up with a Nobel.

The rise of Holbrooke has a significance beyond his own charmed resume or even peace in Bosnia. It says a lot about the changing culture of the Clinton administration. Today, that culture is less kindly than when the Clintonites took over in 1993. Nothing epitomizes this more than the rise of what some staffers call The Two Dicks, Morris and Holbrooke. (Dick Morris, of course, is the fantastically flexible political consultant Clinton has brought in to save his presidency.) The two personify a Washington truth, a human truth. Sometimes it takes a nudge, even a jerk, to get things done.


When the Clinton administration came to Washington in 1993, they had a different idea. Clintonites enveloped themselves in what might be called a culture of niceness. Genial types gave the Clinton White House a kinder, gentler cast than George Bush's regime, where the likes of John Sununu instilled fear and resentment. Mack McLarty, Clinton's first chief of staff, even earned the moniker "Mack the Nice" because of his courtly manner. He was the anti-Sununu, genial to a fault. Whereas Sununu would be brusque in any meeting, McLarty was quick to thank anyone for "visiting" with him. Economic adviser Bob Rubin, a Wall Street millionaire more reminiscent of Warren Buffett than Gordon Gekko, was also an avatar of niceness. Clinton staffers were first introduced to this side of him in the fall of 1992, when Rubin came to Little Rock to meet with Clinton and brought a cake for weary staffers.

The idea behind all of this niceness, said Clinton officials at the time, was to create a team atmosphere in which, according to the Total Quality Management principles that the president so admires, cooperation would replace confrontation. The dictum extended to the mid-level culture of Team Clinton, too. Former Communications Director Mark Gearan was more likely to tap out Broadway showtunes on the piano than yell. Deputy Domestic Policy Adviser Bruce Reed—who White House press members thought could be played by the fresh-faced Ron Howard in "Clinton: The Movie"—was also known as a great conciliator. To be sure, there was plenty of backstabbing in Clintonland. David Gergen, for one, got the shiv. And there were tough guys, too, like the First Lady. But compared to the tempestuousness of Sununu or Don Regan or Hamilton Jordan, the Clinton White House was downright temperate.

But, as the Clintonites found out, amiability is an overrated quality. More niceness equaled less discipline. Meetings dragged on because everyone got to be heard. Decisions dawdled. Even after the arrival of more fiery types like Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes, the culture of nice pervaded. Ickes was still the odd man out in early 1994 when he shocked senior White House officials who had gathered for a Roosevelt Room meeting on the Whitewater affair. After McLarty had offered an assessment, Ickes weighed in in more eschatological terms: "They're fucking us blue." But such bombast was the exception. Ickes remained a lone tough guy in a White House saddled by inertia.

No more. Today, Holbrooke and Morris set the tone for an administration that is more cutthroat but more efficient, too. The two share a preternatural sense of ambition that, White House officials grudgingly acknowledge, make them good for their jobs. For one thing, both have been willing to make their grievances public. Before he returned to Clinton's side, Morris, according to Republican operatives, made a living out of telling the GOP that Clinton—his client back in the late '70s—was a man with, er, certain weaknesses. Morris denies saying this, but several Republicans have been quoted in recent weeks, especially in an article by the New York Post's Deborah Orin, noting that Morris was eager to share the dope on Clinton with anyone who'd pay his consulting fees, including Bush. Likewise, Holbrooke openly told reporters about his frustration with the lack of U.S. and Western military retaliation for Serb atrocities.

Morris and Holbrooke were not only willing to break ranks, they broke china, too. "Each of them came in under circumstances that were a mess," says a senior Clinton adviser. "They had motive, but they also had opportunity." Morris insinuated himself in every corner of the White House, shaping policy, taking issues that had languished and turning them into weapons the president could wield. These days, for instance, Morris is telling Clinton on welfare reform that he should sign the harsh Senate bill and/or the budget but that he can't veto both. Issues like teenage smoking and the balanced budget and food safety lay untapped before Morris's arrival. Sure, Morris pushed too far. A proposed radio address on Japanese trade that Morris crafted earlier this year was, in the opinion of one official, so harsh that it read like another Hiroshima. Likewise, many at the State Department initially thought Holbrooke was what one aide deemed too "disruptive" for the Bosnia job. According to Clinton officials, pushing from Strobe Talbott and others at State overcame the objections.

Both Dicks, notes one senior Clinton official, are devout students of history. Pro-Contra in the '80s, Holbrooke knew that diplomacy would only work if matched by force. Morris, for all the criticism that he's taken, understands that Clinton needs to create what Morris (rather pretentiously) calls a Hegelian synthesis, a melding of conservatism and liberalism into a politics of the center. The pushiness has paid off for both Dicks. Holbrooke (along with American air power and the Croatian army) helped propel the peace process to Dayton. Morris has come up with a strategy that's buoying Clinton's political fortunes—at least for now.


To be sure, Holbrooke and Morris are very different. Holbrooke craves the cameras. Morris is the Jackie O. of political consultants, shunning interviews, making privacy paramount. Holbrooke is a Manhattan sophisticate who moves in a world of Carnegie Endowment symposia and Bilderburg conferences. He dated Diane Sawyer before marrying Kati Marton, the ex-Mrs. Peter Jennings. Morris, a streetfighter, lives modestly in suburban Connecticut, has no office with his name on it and works, like a traveling salesman, from a cellular phone and a pager. Holbrooke undersells results. He constantly says that Bosnia won't be a quick fix. Morris is notorious for overselling. He's been saying privately that Clinton's re-election may be assured by next spring—more than six months before voters actually go to the polls. And Holbrooke, ultimately, is a more serious, formidable person. Morris is and always will be a mercenary's mercenary.

Still, the two share an innate rattle-the-cages sensibility that the Clinton administration is grateful for. Clinton has told friends that he personally feels indebted to Holbrooke for helping to ease a political and moral problem that once seemed intractable. And despite rumors that Morris was on the outs, following revelations about his having worked on a number of GOP campaigns that trashed Clinton, no one in the president's inner circle thinks that Morris is going to be let go anytime soon.

It would be nice, of course, to think that nice people should rule the world. But the lesson of the Clinton administration is different: nice guys finish last, but that can be a good thing. Sometimes, it takes a Dick.