People problems dog Clinton team spirit

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As the President completes his first 100 days in office, collegiality remains high - but strains are showing as his political fortunes wane

WHEN President Bill Clinton invited his cabinet and closest advisers for a post-inaugural weekend retreat at Camp David, we knew his was meant to be a touchy-feely sort of administration, short on formal hierarchy and long on team-work. His guests were even encouraged to lay bare their innermost personal secrets.

The philosophy, 100 days on, seems more or less to have endured. A strong sense of collegiality is said still to reign in the White House, with Mr Clinton involving himself directly in nearly everything, and keeping his door ajar to almost all those who need to confer with him.

Predictably however, as the President's political fortunes have waned, so strains have started to show. White House watchers are still trying to fathom why the Budget Director, Leon Panetta, apparently stepped so far out of line on Monday in speaking on the record about the President's deepening difficulties on Capitol Hill. And while the team as a whole has won largely solid reviews, some members are not escaping harsh criticism.

The man arousing most suspicion is Mr Clinton's youthful Communications Director, George Stephanopoulos. Popular with correspondents during the campaign, he managed to alienate the White House press corps from day one. He is now widely accused of smugness and arrogance, and of displaying a remarkable capacity during daily briefings to impart almost nothing. 'Smile, don't smirk,' Newsweek advises him this week.

'Obviously the White House press operation is in a shambles right now,' complains one Democrat old hand, adding that the deterioration in relations between the 32-year-old Mr Stephanopoulos and the press virtually guarantees harsh 100-day critiques this week. 'If you are going to treat people like crap they are going to be waiting in the wings to throw it back at you.'

Also directed at Mr Stephanopoulos is an often-heard criticism that the White House is running the country as if it is still campaigning, worrying more about opinion, say, in Wisconsin and Florida than what needs to be done to influence the real power bases in Washington and New York. But as a close confidant of the Clintons' and informal adviser, Mr Stephanopoulos seems secure.

Almost as negative are the mutterings around town about Thomas McLarty, an old Arkansas friend of Mr Clinton, now in Washington as White House Chief of Staff. In the words of one junior official there is a general sense that 'we lack an enforcer'. If his role is to discipline, browbeat wayward congressmen and protect the President from unwanted visitors, Mr McLarty may not be sufficiently beastly for the job.

'Everyone knows he's a nice guy,' one Democrat insider remarked. 'But if I want a priest then I'll go find a nice guy. For this job we need a Rasputin.' But Mr McLarty evidently sees his responsibilities rather differently than do his critics. 'My role is to organise and facilitate people to see him (Mr Clinton),' he recently said, 'as opposed to being the gatekeeper.'

Among the department heads, two have come under the spotlight because of events. Janet Reno, the Attorney-General, has emerged from the Waco debacle with her reputation almost enhanced, due, apparently, to her willingness from the start to take responsibility. Warren Christopher, Secretary of State, meanwhile, is finding that his reputation for caution is being reinforced by his position against military action in Bosnia.

In time we will know whether Leon Panetta's briefing on Monday - in which he acknowledged that almost all the President's legislative programme is in virtual disarray - was just a one-off gaffe or the first symptom of something more sinister. If Mr Panetta was being knowingly disloyal then perhaps we have heard the first snaps of a briefly happy team already coming asunder as the political realities of the presidency grow.

Verdict on 100 days, page 29

(Photograph omitted)