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HIGH CLINTON OFFICIALS SHOW LACK OF LOYALTY

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WASHINGTON POST editor Bob Woodward's new book on the Clinton White House, "The Agenda," has been the big "inside Washington" story the past two weeks. Commentary has centered on what it says about the president and about his administration's processes of decisionmaking.

What's far more revealing, and disturbing, however, is the book's portrayal of vast changes taking place in high officials' sense of what public service requires. "The Agenda" describes an administration where virtually no one can keep his or her mouth shut - at least to a prestigious reporter who works for the big hometown paper.A number of officials, such as National Economic Council chairman Robert Rubin and presidential counselor David Gergen, who have confirmed specific remarks that Woodward attributes to them, have said the book gets things wrong in the large, even if it's correct in the small.

Gergen says, for example, that while Woodward does indeed show "confusion," "indecisiveness" and "chaos" in high administration circles, "I've been in three previous White Houses" and "I don't see much that's new."

Woodward tells the story of then-candidate Clinton's reaction to articles that the writer had done for the Washington Post on the Bush economic team. Published just a month before the November 1992 balloting, the series portrayed backbiting and disarray among such key Bush officials as budget chief Richard Darman, Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and Council of Economic Advisers chairman Michael Boskin.

Speaking to senior strategist James Carville, "The Agenda" tells us, Clinton ridiculed and condemned the economic team for its apparent disloyalty. "But they're rats," Clinton is supposed to have said, "jumping ship. George Bush made them. They were nothing before."

If this was the gist of his comments to Carville, how deeply he must resent the far greater "disloyalty" of his own staff. The revelations contained in the Oct. 4-7, 1992, Post stories about Bush associates seem positively restrained compared with those about Clinton's advisers.

Some examples. George Stephanopoulos, perhaps Clinton's closest aide, is said to have told incoming budget director Leon Panetta that the president-elect's worst failing is that he can never make a decision.

Senior political assistant Paul Begala opines that the president is so lacking in backbone that without his wife he would have had a career as the most popular law professor at the University of Arkansas.

Political adviser Stanley Greenberg is said to have thought at one key juncture in 1993 that Hillary Rodham Clinton's strategy on health care was insane and dishonest.

Again and again, high-ranking officials remark, in amazement and disapproval, on the president's uncontrolled fits of rage, and in particular on the tirades he supposedly directed against Stephanopoulas, whose chief qualification for his post, according to the book, is his willingness to submit to the most-demeaning treatment. The president and aides are routinely quoted punctuating their sentences with what is, apparently, this administration's favorite expletive.

Even when Woodward's description involves no disparaging remarks, it contains mind-boggling details on high-level, closed-door meetings.

No one in the administration is denying the book's most disturbing feature: that scores of middle- and high-level members of a new administration gave a reporter extensive accounts of closed-door meetings and copies of memorandums intended to be confidential.

And for what purpose? Apparently for nothing higher than settling scores and gaining ego balm from being "important" enough to be able to embarrass colleagues, and even the president himself, to a celebrity reporter. "The Agenda" is bereft of any "this is so bad I must resign and tell my real bosses, the people, why" motivation.

Governments need to be able to have confidential discussions. Administration members need to be able to say things in private without wondering how it will look in print only months later. Lack of basic restraint, and the absence of a higher responsibility than insider one-upmanship, debases the governmental process.

The Clinton administration didn't start this problem. But Woodward suggests it is determined to carry it to new extremes.