Clinton and the Ladies (It’s not what you think)

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Publication Date: April 1, 1994
By Benjamin Shapell
Originally Published in INSIDER'S REPORT, April, 1994.
President Bill Clinton
Official White House photo of President Bill Clinton. Bob McNeely, The White House. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the first challenges a newly-elected President must face before taking office is the tedious process of selecting his cabinet and filling other important government positions. It is one of the most important tasks a President must address, and one fraught with potential political risk. Upon his election in 1856, bachelor President James Buchanan anticipated the difficulty of selecting his cabinet and looked for spiritual strength and guidance from his friend, Reverend Henry Slicer: “I trust that a kind Providence will bestow upon me wisdom from on high to enable [me] to choose the proper men for the proper places.” Buchanan knew the task could be formidable – fifteen years before, John Tyler made 26 changes in his cabinet in less than four years in office, the most ever made by any President.

Since the beginning of his Presidency over one year ago, President Clinton has also had a difficult time filling important government posts.  He has endured a well-publicized and seemingly endless series of searches and rejections, mangled nominations and embarrassing resignations. In fulfilling his promise of assembling a diverse cabinet, he has gone beyond Buchanan’s “gender limitations” by trying to find the proper women for the proper places, as well.  Of his first 11 appointments, men outnumbered women 7 – 4 in the gender game, but the ladies could not help feeling like the winners.

For the first six months of his term, however, Clinton might have done better had he kept to Buchanan’s credo of finding “proper men.”  When it came time to consider nominees for key posts in the Department of Justice, Clinton’s long, drawn-out failure to do so was politically devastating.  He had tried to break up the “Boys’ Club” that had effectively locked up the Big Four power posts, the Departments of  Justice, State, Defense and Treasury.  But then came “Nannygate.”  Zoe Baird’s nomination for Attorney General was withdrawn following disclosures that she had hired two illegal immigrants and failed to pay their Social Security and unemployment taxes.  Clinton’s relaxed questioning of Baird’s replacement, Kimba Wood, subsequently failed to reveal that she, too, had an illegal nanny problem.  On the third try, “dark horse” Miami prosecutor Janet Reno seemed to come out of nowhere to capture the top post, only to be blamed for the April 1993 fiasco at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.

After only one hundred days, “misjudgment” seemed to be an appropriate label to pin on this administration that repeatedly made selections it soon came to regret.  But the nightmare only continued.  For the third time in as many months, Clinton dropped an esteemed female lawyer from consideration for a top Justice Department post – this time, Lani Guinier, whom he had nominated only days before for the top civil rights job in the Department, in spite of her controversial writings on minority representation.

Following the Guinier affair, Clinton might well have had enough of the “ladies” and hitched his wagon to Buchanan’s plan of choosing men.  Yet choosing the proper men for the proper places proved to be just as trying and embarrassing a task for Clinton.  In June, he attempted to fill yet another judicial post, that of Supreme Court Justice, in the wake of  Justice Byron White’s decision to step down from the bench.  But Clinton again ran up against a brick wall.  Likely nominee Stephen Breyer had also failed to pay Social Security taxes for a part-time cleaning woman.  Finally, six months into his term, Clinton got it right with his selection of female Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was quickly confirmed.  And in September, Clinton’s nominee for Surgeon General, Joycelyn Elders, squeaked by her Senate confirmation after a three-month battle.

Clinton’s most visible and controversial personnel change, however, occurred with the forced resignation of a cabinet member: Defense Secretary Les Aspin.  The Clinton administration found itself on yet another frantic search for a replacement, with General Colin Powell, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn, and former Republican Senator from New Hampshire Warren Rudman all turning Clinton down.  Bobby Inman, a former admiral and deputy director of the CIA, finally got the nod, only to yank his own nomination in a bizarre move which stunned the administration.  William Perry, second in line at the Department of Defense, eventually agreed to take the job and was quickly confirmed by the Senate.

The Whitewater controversy has brought issues of the President’s competency, professionalism and honesty to the forefront, with enormously powerful men and women in Clinton’s administration now being subpoenaed to testify before Congress.  Just last month, White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum submitted his resignation, bringing to an end a year-long tenure marked by accusations that he had compromised President Clinton’s political standing.  Nussbaum apparently had a knack for political miscues, with his advice contributing to the withdrawals of three female candidates – Baird, Wood and Guinier.  Clinton’s “revolving door” administration is rapidly beginning to show its age, with Nussbaum’s resignation signaling perhaps only the beginning of many others to follow.

Often down, but never out, Bill Clinton has weathered many storms in the past – during his childhood, his marriage, his rocky Presidential candidacy, and his first year in office.  Each time, he has been able to hang in there and somehow muscle his way back to the front of the line.  However, Whitewater represents Clinton’s toughest challenge to date, with his personal decisions affecting his business affairs perhaps calling his own job security into question.

Not surprisingly, the Whitewater investigation has also zeroed in on perhaps Bill Clinton’s top advisor and confidante, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was herself responsible for the selection of many of the President’s appointees.  New focus has been placed on Hillary’s 20-year professional career, as investigators and reporters now eagerly sift through her records for evidence of conflicts of interest in her law practice, mis-reported income on her tax returns or funds funneled to her and her family by Whitewater partner James McDougal.  One thing seems almost certain, however – that there was a whole lot of paper shredding going on at The Rose Law Firm (Hillary’s old office) as Bill Clinton edged closer and closer to the Presidency and on into 1993.

In the past, some Presidents have benefited considerably from their wives’ contributions during their administrations.  Jacqueline Kennedy was certainly one, Eleanor Roosevelt another fine example.  Others, like Mary Todd Lincoln, with her Confederate relatives and controversial spending habits, were a constant source of embarrassment and uneasiness for their husbands.

As the Whitewater affair unfolds and his wife’s possible role in the scandal comes under increased scrutiny, it is ironic that Bill Clinton is likely to suffer the most damage from someone who, though she has wielded enormous de facto power within the administration, cannot be fired or even forced to resign.  That, I’m sure, is something James Buchanan could never have imagined!