West Wing Redecorating a la Panetta

White House Watchers Speculate on Chief of Staff’s Next Move

A few weeks into his tenure as George Bush’s second chief of staff, Samuel K. Skinner said there was nothing wrong with Bush’s policies, the White House had just failed to communicate those policies to the American people.

When Leon E. Panetta was named Bill Clinton’s second chief of staff last month, one of his first statements was about an agreement he had made with the president to do a better job of getting Clinton’s message out to the American people.

History, Panetta and the White House rumor mill suggest that when a president is in political trouble – Clinton is now sliding slowly below the 50 percent approval level in many polls – the communications operation is the first to get the blame and catch the eye of White House reorganization gurus.

It is job angst time at the Clinton White House, especially in the communications shop. When a new staff chief comes on, anxiety takes over, and the Clinton operation is no different.

After two weeks of preparing and executing the president’s overseas trip, the Clinton White House comes home today. Staff members will find offices filled with packing boxes. They will fall into the embrace of Panetta, who stayed behind these past nine days figuring out how to make good on his pledge to change and improve the White House operation.

The staff realizes that practically speaking, Panetta’s arrival means somebody actually has to be replaced, since former chief of staff Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty is staying on as a counselor. Someone has to go. Or at least get layered – the fine White House art of adding people on top of people and never firing anyone.

The betting is on layering. And enlarging.

Rumor du jour yesterday was the Holding Carter, the Carter administration State Department spokesman, was being courted to oversee communications in what one official called “a Gergen-like role.” David R. Gergen, counselor to the president, oversaw communications at the White House, including the shops of communications director Mark Gearan and press secretary Dee Dee Myers. Gergen is moving to the State Department as a senior foreign policy adviser.

When asked why the White House just doesn’t keep Gergen instead of searching for a “Gergen-like figure,” one admittedly low-level aide said, “That wouldn’t be a change would it?”

Carter’s immediate response to queries on whether he had been approached was loud laughter. Then a flat denial, “There have been no discussions whatsoever, none,” he said.

Panetta, whose media appearances the past month suggest he has already developed the vital chief-of-staff skill of speaking without imparting any real information, put that skill on display yesterday.

Asked what changes he planned, he said: “My biggest responsibility right now is to try to make the best use of the talent that’s here. There is obviously going to be some reorganization, there’s obviously going to be some tighter lines of authority….I think everyone feels that we’ve got to put in place tougher discipline to be able to better serve the president.”

During an appearance Sunday on the CBS show “Face the Nation,” Panetta offered another tiny hint of his intentions. Referring to outside political consultants, such as James Carville and Paul Begala, and pollster Stanley Greenberg, he said, “They ought not to just have free access in the White House to all people. They ought to operate through a group that deals with strategic planning, and nothing else.”

Those consultants have been heavily involved in economic policy planning in the White House and other policy issues. All have had relatively free access to the President, First lady and several senior staff members.

Since Panetta has offered few clues to his intentions – yesterday he said he would give Clinton his “recommendations” this week – White House watchers are resigned to watching offices.

This report from the front: Gergen’s office, in the lower level near the Situation Room and the White House Mess, is being packed up for his move to State, along with at least one of his assistants. An earlier announcement – that he would have an office in the Old Executive Office Building as well as State – is considered window-dressing.

Meanwhile, the tiny but strategically-placed office of George Stephanopoulos, the senior adviser whose location puts him the closest to Clinton, is said to be undisturbed. “The pictures are on the wall. The papers are on the desk. No signs of a move. It’s not even tidied up,” said one official who agreed to casually stroll by and phone in a report.

McLarty was said to want the Stephanopoulos office but perhaps has given up that quest. That leaves either McLarty or Bruce Lindsey to move into Gergen’s quarters.

The only truly vacant office belonged to David Watkins, the director of administration forced out of office after taking to presidential helicopter to a Maryland golf course. Officials are said to be measuring it for Billy Webster, chief of staff to the secretary of Education.

As one senior official put it: The discussion of office space is always a nasty debate in a West Wing with very limited space and very small offices and too much location symbolism. “I assume that since we are all grown men here, this will be worked out,” he said.