The Clinton Charisma
A Legacy of Leadership
By Donald T. Phillips
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2007 Donald T. Phillips
All rights reserved.
The Oval Office was redecorated in August 1993 during the two weeks that President Clinton and his family were vacationing on Martha's Vineyard. Prior to his departure, Clinton voiced only one request about the new look. He said he wanted his office to somehow reflect diversity.
When he returned, the president found not only gold drapes and a deep blue carpet, but also a new statue to go along with Rodin's "The Thinker." It was the likeness of a Native American on horseback entitled "Appeal to the Great Spirit," and was chosen from the permanent White House art collection to "celebrate the stoicism and dignity of Native Americans." The sculpture stood alone on a small table and was intended to symbolize the diversity of people that made America great, and the diversity that Bill Clinton intended to champion during his administration.
A more appropriate table for viewing the diversity reflected in the Clinton administration, however, was located a few doors down the hall in a major conference room. It was the table at which the president's cabinet sat. Never before had there been more African Americans, Hispanic Americans, or women directing and guiding the United States Government. As a matter of fact, within a few months after Bill Clinton took office, the United States cabinet, for the first time in the history of the nation, was not composed of a majority of white males.
As president, Clinton did more than simply recognize and tolerate individuals from various cultures, he actively sought out and surrounded himself with people who represented America's multitudes, with people who had a wide range of experiences, and with people who could offer a perspective different than his own.
CASTING THE NET WIDE
"I will give you an administration that looks like America," stated Clinton during his run for president. At the time, that promise seemed implausible to implement and simply campaign rhetoric. However, within a few months of taking office, Clinton had set in motion a process that eventually resulted in an administration that reflected the demographics of the nation. And after one year in office, a full 14 percent of Clinton's appointees were African American compared to 12 percent of the total U.S. population; 46 percent were female compared to a roughly 50–50 split nationwide between men and women; and while 75 percent of the population was Caucasian, Clinton's appointments tallied 76 percent. Moreover, his administration's appointments of Hispanics, Native Americans, and other minorities were remarkably consistent with nationwide demographic statistics.
In Clinton's original cabinet alone, five members were African American: Ron Brown (Commerce), Jesse Brown (Veterans Affairs), Lee Brown (Drug Czar), Mike Espy (Agriculture), and Hazel O'Leary (Energy); two were Hispanic: Henry Cisneros (Housing and Urban Development) and Federico Pena (Transportation); and six were women, including: Madeleine Albright (U.N. Ambassador), Carol Browner (EPA), Janet Reno (Attorney General), Donna Shalala (Health and Human Services), and Laura D'Andrea Tyson (Council of Economic Advisers).
Only eight members of the original cabinet were white males: Bruce Babbitt (Interior), Lloyd Bentsen (Treasury), Warren Christopher (State), Mickey Kantor (U.S. Trade Representative), Leon Panetta (Office of Management and Budget), Les Aspin (Defense), Robert Reich (Labor), and Richard Riley (Education).
During the appointments process, President Clinton was criticized by members of the press and the Republican Party for being slow with his nominations. Seven months into his presidency he was behind the nomination paces set by Presidents Carter and Reagan—but ahead of George H. W. Bush's. He was also chastised early on by impatient women's rights groups for not appointing enough females to positions of authority.
The entire process was slowed, in part, by Clinton's own demand for a combination of diversity and competence in all his prospective appointees. Another reason for the delay was the scarcity of qualified minority and female candidates. Women and minorities in the workforce between the ages of thirty and sixty-four were few in number, which made the searches significantly more difficult. Furthermore, once qualified candidates were identified, they had to be talked into coming to work for the federal government, which, at the time, was not an appealing thought to most successful business people.
Clinton, however, consistently ignored the criticism and continued to focus on the long-term view of his administration. He would not be rushed into his appointments—and he would personally involve himself throughout the review and selections process. Frequently, the president handed back lists of potential appointees with the admonition that he wanted "more diversity." Eventually, Clinton's White House staff leveled out at 45 percent women and 20 percent minorities, with significant diversity in age—from "elders" like Lloyd Bentsen and Leon Panetta, to the so-called Youth Brigade headed by thirty-two-year-old George Stephanopoulos and Dee Dee Myers, the first female White House Press Secretary in American history.
In addition to his own staff at the White House, the new president made tremendous strides in diversifying the federal judiciary. As a matter of fact, 61 percent of his appointments were either women or minorities, the most notable selection being that of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Eleven percent were Latinos, and Clinton even appointed the first blind federal judge, David Tatel, to fill Ginsburg's vacated seat.
Nearly all branches of the federal government saw increases in the numbers of females within their ranks. President Clinton nominated women to head the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (Ricki Tigert), the Air Force (Sheila Widnall), and the National Endowment for the Arts (Jane Alexander). He also made Joycelyn Elders the nation's first African American surgeon general, Mary Ellen Withrow Treasurer of the United States and, in 1997, Madeleine Albright the first female secretary of state.
Overall, Clinton's attitude toward women as equals was decidedly different from previous presidents. He not only reached out to them, but his pace at appointing women to leadership roles was unprecedented in American history. By doing so, he took a bold step forward in changing the status quo, challenging to embrace true equality in government service, and helped set the stage for a more equal distribution of talent in future administrations.
In order to assure that he received a broad range of advice, Clinton surrounded himself with liberals and conservatives, often from both the Republican and Democratic parties. On issues dealing with communications or foreign affairs, he relied, in part, on David Gergen, who had served Republican presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. For legal advice, he consulted with, among others, Lloyd Cutler, who was Democratic President Jimmy Carter's White House counsel. And several years into his administration, Clinton appointed Republican senator William Cohen secretary of defense.
Clinton frequently took advantage of the skills and talents of members of his own and the opposing party. For instance, he was able to persuade William Frenzel, a Republican member of the House of Representatives for twenty years, to join the White House team attempting to secure passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He dispatched Robert Oakley (who served under George H. W. Bush) to Somalia to negotiate with General Mohammed Farah Aideed for a resolution to the festering problem in that country. And in a last-ditch effort to avoid an invasion of Haiti, Clinton asked the triumvirate of Jimmy Carter, retired General Colin Powell, and Senator Sam Nunn to travel to Port-Au-Prince to persuade the military dictators to leave the country of their own accord.
When confronting controversial or difficult situations, as in the Haiti situation, Clinton often consulted with members of Congress from both parties. "Every time I have consulted the Congress," he said in May 1993, "they say to me in private: 'You're the only president that ever took us into counsel beforehand. Instead of telling us what you were going to do, you actually ask us our opinion."
Many people interpreted this practice of asking for advice as an inherent weakness in his leadership style. But Clinton demurred. "I want the best and most creative advice I can get across the broad range of areas with which we must deal," he said. Most leaders intuitively realize that diversity is a plus in both decision making and in effectively representing a mixture of people in a democratic society. That's because they know that diversity is very much a part of the American dream. But more important, it is part of democracy's continuing success. Clinton commented on this belief at a town hall meeting in Moscow in January 1994: "Many leaders ... have come from basically quite humble circumstances," he said. "That's a great thing for a nation, to make it possible to cast the net for talent very wide so that anybody has a chance to rise to the top if he or she has the ability and the good fortune to do so."
A HISTORY WITH DIVERSITY
Clinton's promotion of diverse people did not begin when he assumed the presidency. As governor of Arkansas, he was known for his interest in the issues of race and gender. At each of his four inaugurations, he saw to it that the festivities reflected the diversity of religion, race, and gender evident in the state. In his first inaugural address, he mentioned the issue outright. "For as long as I can remember," said Clinton, "I have believed passionately in the cause of equal opportunity, and I will do what I can to advance it."
And advance it he did. Fully 15 percent of his appointments to Arkansas public offices and government jobs were African Americans. Clinton also appointed more minorities to state positions than all the prior governors of Arkansas combined. Part of Clinton's passion on this issue can be traced back to his childhood. When he was very young, his mother left him for several years in the care of his grandparents, who lived in Hope and ran a grocery store in a poor section of town heavily populated by African Americans. Clinton's grandfather relied on good relations in the community for a meager livelihood. And as a boy, Clinton could not understand why he wasn't allowed to go to school with the youngsters he played with at home. Apparently, it was an experience he never forgot.
When Clinton left Arkansas for college, he became known for his "color blindness." His former roommate at Georgetown University called Bill "the most unprejudiced person I have ever met," and said further that "any manifestation of bigotry distresses him." Later, at Yale Law School, Clinton once brashly plopped himself down at the school cafeteria's "black" table. The young African American law students were at first offended by such audacity, but eventually grew to be his friends.
In part, Bill Clinton's interest in diversity stemmed from his innate desire to care for people, to reach out and give others a hand up the ladder, and to help others realize their maximum potential. "All my life," he once said, "I've wanted to be involved with people and help them with their problems. I've been interested in all kinds of people. Politics has just given me a way to pursue my interest and my concern on a large scale. I've given it all the energy and spirit I can muster; I've tried to bring out the best in people through politics; and I've really been very happy doing it."
SPEAKING THEIR MINDS—ACTING ON THEIR OWN INITIATIVE
Among his cabinet members and aides, President Clinton encouraged freedom of thought and expression through frank and open discussions. Because he encouraged such openness, most of his cabinet officers and advisers did not feel they were walking on eggshells when they werearound him. They could state their cases whether or not he liked what they had to say. People would not be punished for speaking their minds. In late April 1993, for example, when Budget Director Leon Panetta received criticism for publicly stating that the president would have trouble getting things passed in Congress unless he did "a better job of picking and choosing the battles he wants to go through," Clinton remarked at a press conference that Panetta "had a bad day, because he got his spirits down." When a reporter inferred that Panetta might be disciplined, Clinton responded: "I want to buck him up. I don't want to take him to the woodshed." A little more than a year later, Panetta was appointed White House Chief of Staff. The president then appointed Panetta's deputy, Alice Rivlin, the first woman to head the Office of Management and Budget.
Labor Secretary Robert Reich once commented that Clinton, in assembling his cabinet, looked for "people who could work together ... not loose cannons or prima donnas." Yet the new president appointed some very strong-willed people to high positions in the administration. People like Reno, Reich, Bentsen, Cisneros, Pena, Shalala, and Elders all had strong personalities combined with a vision of what they wanted to accomplish in the administration.
Clinton knew that choosing such results-oriented people would allow him to achieve more. Almost immediately, that strategy began to pay off. It was no coincidence, for example, that the five government agencies with the highest percentages of minority employees (Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs) were also those that were led by minorities. In each case, diversity gave rise to more diversity. Like Clinton, the president's minority choices appointed people reflecting their own experiences—in effect, turning the president's ideas and thoughts into actions far beyond what he could have accomplished on his own.
By choosing people who were action-oriented, and then empowering them to act, Clinton took a risk that they would fight with him on many of his own initiatives. And for Clinton, that turned out to be the case in a number of instances. Attorney General Janet Reno, for instance, steadfastly refused to combine the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms with the FBI (as Clinton and Gore had recommended in their Reinventing Government initiative). In a meeting on welfare reform in late March of 1994, the entire cabinet balked at an idea proposed by the president's task force that called for financing the $15 billion program through major cuts in aide to disadvantaged families. And many of his cabinet members and senior staff advised against presenting to Congress a 1,342-page healthcare plan. They believed it was too detailed, too bureaucratic, and would not get through either house of Congress. In the end, after listening to all the advice, Clinton decided to submit the proposed legislation as it stood and then offer to compromise. But his dissenting advisers turned out to be right as the plan was eventually scrapped.
Moreover, most of Clinton's cabinet secretaries began forceful and dynamic initiatives of their own. Reich, for example, a friend of Clinton's for more than twenty-five years, pursued an ambitious agenda that included retraining laid-off workers, revitalizing the American workplace, and eliminating decades of hostility between labor unions and management in major corporations. In the year he was secretary of defense, Les Aspin moved boldly to open the American military to women by creating more than 15,000 positions aboard warships and combat aircraft. Henry Cisneros mobilized the Department of Housing and Urban Development with his "shared vision of hope," and created a movement toward more subsidized housing in suburbs and less in central urban areas. And Attorney General Janet Reno took swift action after the murder of a Pensacola doctor at an abortion clinic. She stormed Capitol Hill to urge Congress to move more quickly in making it a federal crime to threaten either abortion providers or women seeking abortions. In addition, Reno worked with Director Louis J. Freeh to add a woman, a Hispanic man, and an African American man to the top management of the FBI.
DIVERSITY IN THE MODERN ARENA
Building strength through diversity is something altogether different from the "politically correct" syndrome that engulfed the United States in the late twentieth century. In the early 1990s, nearly half of all major corporations had formal programs promoting cultural diversity within their ranks. Part of the reason for this trend can be attributed to the growing process of globalization. When expanding into new global markets, corporations were forced to employ people who mirrored their new and prospective customers. It became nothing less than a matter of survival during a time of intense competition and change.
Diversity in the workforce also fits in well with teamwork, in that a variety of opinions and perspectives result in greater productivity and problem solving. Increased diversity, coupled with working in teams, leads to better decision making. The best, most effective leaders realize that when they are making decisions that affect a diverse populace, it becomes critical to consult a variety of people. For instance, if Bill Clinton was confronted with a decision that could impact African Americans or Hispanics, he could readily seek advice and counsel from members of his own cabinet like Hazel O'Leary or Federico Pena. (Continues...)
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