Clinton tees off with a new chief

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The Independent Online
Bill Clinton yesterday named his long-time associate, golfing partner and confidant, Erskine Bowles, to replace Leon Panetta as his chief of staff - the most powerful position at the White House after that of the President himself.

Only after much pressure did Mr Clinton prevail on the 51-year-old North Carolina businessman to leave a new investment banking venture and return to the White House, where he was deputy chief of staff under Mr Panetta for much of last year.

Even after his return to the private sector, however, the President used Mr Bowles for particularly delicate assignments, among them persuading Mr Clinton's former top political consultant, Dick Morris, to resign at once following the revelation of his affair with a Washington prostitute.

With the appointment of the popular Mr Bowles, from the outset Mr Clinton's preferred choice of successor to Mr Panetta, the President has plugged the first of the holes that have opened in his administration in the immediate wake of his election victory.

Yesterday, the Labour Secretary, Robert Reich, announced that he planned to step down, bringing the number of departing Cabinet members to six.

Apart from Mr Panetta, widely rumoured to be planning a run for the California governorship in 1998, other top White House aides expected to leave include Laura Tyson, Mr Clinton's chief economic adviser, and Anthony Lake, the National Security Adviser.

Though reshuffles by a re-elected president are standard procedure, this will need to be more comprehensive than most.

Three factors are responsible: sheer exhaustion, the lure of far better- paying jobs in the private sector, and fear of being distracted by, or trapped in, the ethics investigations which may be a leitmotif of this particular second term.

But Mr Clinton has clearly learnt lessons since the chaotic transition after he first won the presidency in 1992.

This time, he is moving more quickly to rebuild the White House staff than his Cabinet, a reversal from four years ago, when his obsession with choosing a diverse administration that "looks like America" led to the hasty, last-minute assembling of a slipshod White House team.

The latter's blunders - that ranged from the travel-office scandal to the the FBI files fiasco - haunt President Clinton to this day.

This time, the key Cabinet appointments may wait several weeks as Mr Clinton, in his own words, "casts a wide net".

Faced once again with a hostile Congress, the President would like to appoint at least one Republican to a senior national security post, in the hope of fostering a less partisan relationship with Capitol Hill.

The most likely choices are Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, or outgoing Senator William Cohen of Maine.

Retired general Colin Powell is a less likely contender, given Vice-President Al Gore's understandable reluctance to see a top job going to the man who could well be his most dangerous Republican opponent in the 2000 presidential race.