All roads lead to the Oval Office: Bill Clinton has assembled an impressive cabinet, but he will retain the power. Rupert Cornwell wonders if the Arkansas style will work in Washington

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The Independent Online
Judge a man by the cabinet he picks. The team so painstakingly assembled by President-elect Bill Clinton offers few obvious signposts to the change he has promised America. About Mr Clinton himself, however, it speaks volumes.

Politicians, it has been said, fall into two categories: warriors and healers. The man who on 20 January will become the 42nd President of the United States most emphatically is the latter. But he is also an instinctive mediator, who enjoys no challenge more than teasing out agreement from conflicting viewpoints. 'We must come together' was a slogan that helped win the White House. Within the bounds of his fractious party, the new cabinet bears that imprint.

The incoming administration offers a minutely calibrated blend of youth and experience, insider savvy and outsider flair, seasoned with a larger minority contingent than ever before. Its average age will be 51, compared with 56 for the outgoing Bush cabinet. It contains four blacks, two Hispanics, and four women - but also four sitting members of Congress and three lobbyists, elements of the very Washington establishment that Mr Clinton spent the bulk of his campaign reviling.

The process has not been easy. The image projected from Little Rock over the past four weeks has been of a man steadfastly pursuing his own counsel amid a babble of demands from the special interest groups that are a constant of such occasions. 'Bean-counters,' he angrily called the women's organisations that complained he was not enlisting enough of their own.

But the President-elect had largely brought his problems on himself, by courting almost every available interest group during the campaign and then promising a cabinet that 'looked like America'. In the event, the women's lobbies obtained all they could have hoped for; not least America's first female attorney-general. Compromise can sometimes look very much like compliance.

In truth, too, as Kevin Phillips, a Republican consultant, has noted, the new cabinet 'does not look like America. It looks like the 43 per cent of America which voted for him.' Despite Mr Clinton's vow to look beyond his party, no Republican has been called to the colours, and no discernible gesture has been made to the fifth of the electorate who supported Ross Perot. And while the variety and intellectual credentials of the Clinton team may be impressive, only time will show its chemistry.

Seasoned congressional wisdom, in the form of Lloyd Bentsen, the Treasury Secretary-designate, and Les Aspin, appointed to head the Pentagon, rubs shoulders with the likes of Mike Espy (Agriculture) and Henry Cisneros (Housing), acknowledged to be among the best and brightest that black and Hispanic America offer. Elsewhere, the cabinet is a mixture of key allies rewarded - Ron Brown, the Democratic Party chairman who becomes Secretary of Commerce - and some of the most stimulating minds from American academe, including Donna Shalala, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, and Robert Reich, a fellow Rhodes Scholar from Mr Clinton's Oxford days.

The single message from these appointments is that all roads will lead to Mr Clinton. The pattern holds even in foreign policy, where his experience is sketchiest. The discretion, negotiating skills and judgement of the 67-year-old Warren Christopher are unrivalled. But a conceptualiser and visionary Mr Christopher is not. Those qualities must come from the White House.

Mr Clinton's choice of US Trade Representative - and the way he made it - was more troubling. In the post-Cold War era, where competing economic interests will dictate great power rivalries, no foreign policy post is more important. But during the campaign Mr Clinton hedged and wavered on the issue, one moment trumpeting the virtues of free trade, only to side in almost the next breath with the protectionists, or 'managed traders' as they are politely known. Thus emboldened, the competing lobbies kept up a vicious tug of war to the end. In the event, Mr Clinton chose the path of least resistance and picked Mickey Kantor, his campaign manager, an able lawyer of unquestioned loyalty to his boss but whose trade credentials are zero. The message for anxious Europeans, Mexicans and Japanese could hardly be muddier. The trade road, too, will lead straight to the Oval Office.

Recent presidents have tended to delegate - Ronald Reagan across the board, George Bush (fatally for his hopes of re-election) in the domestic arena. Not so Bill Clinton. In a cabinet of multiple rings and potential power centres, he will be not just policy maker and policy salesman but ringmaster as well. What, for example, if Mr Bentsen finds himself at odds with Robert Rubin, the banker who will chair the President's new National Economic Council? Mr Clinton will decide.

So much was evident, too, from his choice as Chief of Staff, a post occupied in the past by such sabretoothed gatekeepers as Bob Haldeman under Richard Nixon, and more recently John Sununu. This time around, the real Chief of Staff may be Hillary Clinton. But the man who will officially occupy what has justifiably been called the most powerful unelected post in Washington is Thomas 'Mack' McLarty, a friend of the President- elect from their kindergarten days in Hope, Arkansas. By his own account, Mr McLarty is a 'facilitator', whose function will surely be not so much to keep people out of the Oval Office as to let them in.

The 'hands-on' technique worked splendidly in Arkansas, but the White House is another matter. Very soon, Bill Clinton must not only examine options but choose between them. And the structure of government he appears to have created could tax even his prodigious energies and intellectual curiosity.

In making the inescapable choice of its Man of the Year, Time magazine wrote this week that Bill Clinton has become the most powerful individual in the world at 'a radically unstable moment' in history - yet has the opportunity 'to preside over one of those moments when Americans dig out of their deepest problems by re-imagining themselves'. Strip away the hyperbole, and the point is valid.

At such times, the old rules may be a positive hindrance. Bill Clinton is nothing if not a quick study. No president has entered office with a greater grasp of public policy, none has thought more deeply about the art of governance, none has possessed more finely tuned political antennae. Above all, he is adaptable. Even for the best prepared, the White House is a place where you learn on the job. Its next occupant has said he plans to change the presidency. It may end up by changing him.

----------------------------------------------------------------- Who's who in the Clinton cabinet ----------------------------------------------------------------- SECRETARIES Agriculture: . . . . . . . . . . .Mike Espy, 39 Attorney-General: . . . . . . . . Zoe Baird, 40 Commerce: . . . . . . . . . . . . Ron Brown, 51 Defense: . . . . . . . . . . . . .Les Aspin, 54 Education: . . . . . . . . . . . .Richard Riley, 59 Energy: . . . . . . . . . . . . . Hazel O'Leary, 55 Environmental Protection Agency: .Carol Browner, 37 Health and Human Services: . . . .Donna Shalala, 51 Housing and Urban Development: . .Henry Cisneros, 45 Interior: . . . . . . . . . . . . Bruce Babbitt, 54 Labor: . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Robert Reich, 46 Secretary of State: . . . . . . . Warren Christopher, 67 Transportation: . . . . . . . . . Federico Pena, 45 Treasury: . . . . . . . . . . . . Lloyds Bentsen, 71 UN Ambassador: . . . . . . . . . .Madeleine Albright, 55 Veterans Affairs: . . . . . . . . Jesse Brown, 48 OTHER SENIOR POSITION White House Chief of Staff: . . . Thomas McLarty, 46 Management and Budget Director: . Leon Panetta, 54 CIA Director: . . . . . . . . . . R James Woolsey, 51 National Security Adviser: . . . .Anthony Lake, 53 US Trade Representative: . . . . .Mickey Kantor, 53 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)

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