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Out of America: Washington Revolving Door opens way to riches

WASHINGTON - Christmas may be the season for charity, but not when it interferes with re-enactment of one of Washington's most ancient morality plays. Bill Clinton's White House may be less than a year old but has already suffered its first high-level resignations.

Tonight Roy Neel, the deputy chief of staff, and Howard Paster, the President's chief liaison man with Capitol Hill, formally leave employment at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But they will not be moving far. Mr Neel is to head a telephone industry trade association, while Mr Paster becomes chairman of Hill and Knowlton, the public-relations firm. In a nutshell, both are entering the lobbying orbit.

Now lobbying may be Washington's black art, but it is part of the city's lifeblood. Its practitioners are numbered in the tens of thousands, all jostling for access to, and influence on, policymakers. These commodities may of course be purchased by money. But proven skill and personal contacts are at least as effective. Hence the attractions of Messrs Neel and Paster - but hence too this ferocious pre-Christmas 'ethics' row over the time-honoured Washington institution of the Revolving Door.

Any other year, understanding would be in order. The switch from government to seeking to influence government has been a commonplace of almost every presidency, Republican and Democratic alike. Both Mr Neel and Mr Paster are 48, almost senile by the youthful standards of this administration. Both have performed sterling service; the one in bringing order and experience to the Clinton White House after its calamitous start, the other in securing victory in the crucial congressional votes on the budget and Nafta. The financial rewards have been modest: salaries of dollars 125,000 (pounds 85,000), reasonable by White House standards where even the President is only paid dollars 200,000, but pittances compared to those in the private sector. They are scant compensation too for the stress of the job, which in the case of Vince Foster, the deputy White House counsel who committed suicide in July, can be enough to kill.

Shortly after the Foster tragedy, Mr Clinton urged his staff to slow down. But there has been little sign of any let-up; Saturday is effectively a White House working day, 80-hour weeks are routine. The excitement of power may be intoxicating; less so is the permanent disruption of family life which is its price.

'I realised,' Mr Neel has said, 'I had become quite irrelevant to the operation of my family.' Ditto Howard Paster. In their new jobs, both will reportedly be making dollars 500,000 a year, and who is to say they do not deserve it?

So why the fuss? The answer is their boss. Candidate Clinton spent much of 1992 outbidding even Ross Perot with his sanctimonious attacks on Washington's 'insider' culture, and the 'open-hunting season' for lobbyists and influence peddlers allowed by Presidents Reagan and Bush. As page 24 of the Clinton/Gore campaign manifesto says, 'high-level executive-branch employees traded in their government jobs for the chance to make millions lobbying their former bosses . . . This betrayal of democracy must stop'.

It hasn't quite worked out like that. True, Mr Clinton did tighten the rules a little when he came to power; people leaving government are now not allowed to lobby their old agency for five years instead of one, and barred for life from representing a foreign government. Technically Mr Neel and Mr Paster are in full compliance; they themselves will not be doing the lobbying, nor will they have dealings with the White House.

But these are semantic wiggles. Both will be in charge of lobbyists. No one is suggesting that either of them are anything but the 'fine, ethical people' that the White House Chief of Staff, Thomas McLarty, claimed in their defence. Anyone, however, who imagines that connections were not a factor in their appointments will believe that Santa Claus lives in Lapland.

Rather, the whole episode is a reminder of a less appealing facet of the Clinton way of governance, temporarily obscured by his recent run of legislative successes. Not for the first time, he is seeking refuge in footnotes and fine print. This is Clinton the candidate who reluctantly admitted to having tried marijuana in his youth but who 'didn't inhale'; or the President who the other day met Salman Rushdie but who 48 hours later sought to mollify Iranian and Muslim critics by insisting the encounter was 'just for a couple of minutes', almost by accident.

Thus too with his efforts to get rid of the Revolving Door. It's not so much the letter of the law which matters, but the spirit of the law. If that is observed, there'll be no need for morality plays to liven up the Christmas season in Washington.